war on the rocks

This is Not the Killer Robot You’re Looking For: Dallas Police Used a Precision-Guided Munition to Kill the Shooter

July 11, 2016

A standoff between police and one of the suspects in a Dallas shooting spree, which left at least five police officers dead and seven others wounded Thursday night, ended after the suspect was killed when a robot delivered and detonated explosives where he was holed up, according to local law enforcement officials.

The move represents a potentially unprecedented use of robots to deliberately deliver lethal force in domestic policing, according to experts, raising questions about how local law enforcement officials are deploying the high-tech tools that increasingly fill their arsenals.

The Washington Post, July 8, 2016


I knew as soon as I saw the headline that the “killer robot” articles would start. That the use of a compact remote-controlled vehicle to selectively eliminate a dangerous, armed killer in a protected position would cause science and technology writers everywhere to collectively gasp and head to their keyboards. There, they would engage in a spinning whirlwind of predictive doom, calling for new regulations, stoking fears of hordes of government-controlled killer robots, and speculating on the future of civilization. But all the hyperventilating over this by technologists obscures the fact that robotic devices have been used to deliver deadly explosives for decades — almost 100 years, if you count the Kettering Bug. Rather than focusing on the robotic delivery of the explosive, it is more useful to understand this as the directed application of a precision-guided munition (PGM) under conditions that clearly called for one.

The facts of the event are generally agreed upon in the press. A domestic terror attack began at roughly 2100 hours, when Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on police officers at the scene of a peaceful protest in Dallas. An exchange of fire began a chaotic firefight in which the assailant changed positions several times before holing up on the second floor of El Centro College’s C Building. There, the shooter established contact with police, expressed his anger, and indicated that he had placed explosive devices downtown. Fire was again exchanged, and the “negotiations” broke down. Dallas police attached a small explosive device to an explosive ordnance disposal unit, emplaced the device adjacent to the shooter’s position, and detonated it, killing the shooter without further danger to police or the public.

While this may have been a new tactic for police in the United States, it is hardly a new tactic. Wehrmacht soldiers in World War II employed the SdKfz. 302 Goliath, a remote-controlled mobile mine that looked like a subscale World War I tank and carried a substantial explosive charge. The weapon trailed a 2,100-foot cable and was steered by a joystick on a simple control box, held by a soldier (presumably) under cover. The Goliath itself was inspired by a French device captured in 1940. The Goliath was not a large success: cutting the cable rendered it ineffective, it moved at a mere 6 miles per hour, and it was vulnerable to counter-fire. Nevertheless, over 7,500 were produced, and they were used on every front.

On Christmas Day 2007, I went on patrol through Baghdad with my favorite combat engineers, the 1138th Sapper Company of the Missouri National Guard. It was an unusually challenging and memorable patrol, capped off by the discovery on the way home of a surface-laid improvised explosive device (IED) on the median of Route Irish, one of the main roads to the Baghdad Airport. We dismounted, cleared the area (including the airspace), and sent our little remote-controlled Talon robot up to the device with two pounds of C4 explosive clutched firmly in its robotic claw. The Talon is a rugged tracked robot with a variety of uses beyond military employment. If it were used by an 11-year-old in a public park to pick up trash, it would be just a toy, albeit an expensive one.

Controlling the Talon from inside our massive Buffalo Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP), the operator moved the robot into position, placed the C4 on the IED, and moved off. As the new guy, I pulled the detonator ring and … nothing happened. Having all relearned the important lesson that one should not close the MRAP’s armored door on the detonator cord, we robotically emplaced another block of C4 and pulled the ring again, successfully. No collateral damage, no injuries, and little fuss. I mention this little event not because it was exceptional, but rather because it wasn’t. It was a routine emplacement of an explosive charge to a precise location for a planned application of minimal force to achieve an effect. Our robot was a precision-guidance package for delivering an explosive weapon to the target.

That’s what the Dallas Police Department did. Faced with a poor tactical situation in which a number of officers were known dead and wounded, the department realized it was dealing with a dangerous individual who claimed to be in possession of explosive devices. So, having localized the target and assessed the collateral damage potential, Dallas police officers selectively employed a precision weapon to eliminate the threat. This is not just a semantic argument — it is exactly what they did. Yes, they used a robot. So what? We use robots to assemble cars, survey terrain, photograph weddings, sort inventory, and drill precise holes.  Robots are merely tools, and it’s hardly necessary to fly into a tizzy when someone creatively uses an old tool in a new way. Humans are tool-users, after all.

Unfortunately for them, police departments are not routinely equipped with precision weapons. Fortunately for them, they had the vision and flexibility to build and employ one on the fly, thereby accomplishing everything we demand from a police department under very trying circumstances. It is very easy, when taking casualties, to lose some element of discipline or control and do far more damage to the surroundings than necessary to contain the threat. The Dallas Police Department did not set loose a killer robot. They emplaced a charge using a precision method that posed the least risk to their force. The Dallas police should be commended for their restraint, discipline, and ingenuity in the face of chaos, confusion, and death. Essentially, they used a PGM under conditions wherein that was exactly the proper response. My hat’s off to them.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or any part of the U.S. government.