Defense Media Network

The Dark Side of Unmanned Systems Autonomy

Where is increased autonomy for military unmanned systems leading?

“My view is that technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution.”

– Max Boot, War Made New

In his best-selling book, War Made New, military historian Max Boot supports his thesis with historical examples to show how technological-driven “Revolutions in Military Affairs” have transformed warfare and altered the course of history. The U.S. military has embraced a wave of technological change that has constituted a true revolution in the way that war is waged.

Unquestionably, one of the most rapidly growing areas of technology adoption involves unmanned systems. In the past decade the military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has increased from only a handful to more than 5,000, while the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) has exploded from zero to more than 12,000. The use of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) is also growing as USVs and UUVs are proving to be increasingly useful for a variety of military applications.

The expanding use of armed unmanned systems (UxS) is not only changing the face of modern warfare, but also altering the process of decision-making in combat operations.

The expanding use of armed unmanned systems (UxS) is not only changing the face of modern warfare, but also altering the process of decision-making in combat operations. Indeed, it has been argued that the rise in drone warfare is changing the way we conceive of and define “warfare” itself. These systems have been used extensively in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to be equally relevant – if not more so – as the United States’ strategic focus shifts toward the Asia-Pacific region and the high-end warfare this strategy requires. The exploding use of UxS is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago.

However, while these unmanned systems are of enormous value today and are evolving to deliver better capabilities to the warfighter, it is their promise for the future that causes the most excitement. Indeed, these systems have created a substantial “buzz” in policy, military, industry, and academic circles. More recently, articles and TV news reports in the mainstream media have begun to deal with the myriad issues involved in “drone warfare.” As more of the public is exposed to the multiple uses of unmanned systems by our military and intelligence agencies, there is more interest in, and scrutiny of, these UxS.

MQ-9 Reaper

An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle takes off July 17, 2008, from Joint Base Balad, Iraq. The Reaper can loiter over battlefields or targets for hours at a time without refueling and carries up to 3,750 pounds of laser-guided munitions, giving ground commanders unprecedented situational awareness and the ability to bring the right amount of force to bear on a target. Unmanned systems already launch weapons by remote control. The question is, will there be a time when they do so without a human “in the loop”? U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Richard Lisum


The Role of UxS in Supporting Future Military Strategy

“The Department of Defense’s vision for unmanned systems is the integration of diverse unmanned capabilities that provide flexible options for Joint Warfighters while exploiting the inherent advantages of unmanned technologies, including persistence, size, speed, maneuverability, and reduced risk to human life. DoD envisions unmanned systems seamlessly operating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision making required for the unmanned portion of the force structure.”

“Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY 2011-2036”

At the tactical level, UxS already support the Department of Defense (DoD) strategy outlined above. However, UxS also have the potential to be a crucial force multiplier. As noted in the Quadrennial Defense Review, “The increasing precision, persistence, and autonomy of unmanned systems hold great promise.” This is particularly true in the Middle East and Asia Pacific regions, which will be the two major hubs for the U.S. military. Significantly, both regions are increasingly characterized by an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat, which UxS are well-poised to help confront. In fact, the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) explicitly identifies “unmanned systems … which could loiter to provide intelligence collection or fires in the objective area” as a key counter to area denial efforts. Clearly, UxS have an integral role to play in achieving the DoD’s and Navy’s strategic goals.

In his June 2013 article in Foreign Policy, “The New Triad,” the recently retired Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Adm. James Stavridis, identified UxS as one of the three pillars of this New Triad, writing:

The second capability in the New Triad is unmanned vehicles and sensors. This branch of the triad includes not only the airborne attack “drones” that are endlessly debated at the moment, but unmanned surveillance vehicles in the air, on the ground, and on the ocean’s surface. … While expensive, such systems have the obvious advantage of not requiring the most costly component of all: people. Also, without people operating them, they can perform in far harsher environments and hold a higher degree of political deniability for covert and clandestine operations.

In many ways, operating in all mediums – air, surface, subsurface, ground, space, and cyberspace – the U.S. Navy has been on the forefront of UxS development. Then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead demonstrated his commitment to developing a long-term vision for unmanned systems in 2008, when he directed the 28th CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) to spend one year examining this issue. Leveraging the SSG’s work, the U.S. Navy leadership has emphasized the need to enhance UxS command and control (C2) capabilities to allow one sailor to control multiple systems in an attempt to lower total ownership costs (TOC). This link between increased autonomy and decreased TOC has made the revolutionary, rather than simply evolutionary, development of UxS absolutely imperative.

Indeed, CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s Sailing Directions state, “Over the next 10 to 15 years … unmanned systems in the air and water will employ greater autonomy and be fully integrated with their manned counterparts.” He further addresses the importance of unmanned systems in his articles “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters” and “Payloads Over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” where he argues that payloads, including UxS, will increasingly become more important than platforms themselves.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...