Defense Media Network

The Dark Side of Unmanned Systems Autonomy

Where is increased autonomy for military unmanned systems leading?

Challenges for Unmanned Systems

“The combat potential of UVs (unmanned vehicles) is virtually unlimited. … There is no question that the Fleet/Forces of the future will be heavily dependent upon UVs.” 

– “Roles of Unmanned Vehicles;” Naval Research Advisory Committee Report; March 2003

As the Naval Research Advisory Committee report indicates, the combat potential for UxS has been recognized for some time. However, there are significant issues that must be addressed now that there is little doubt that the use of UxS will accelerate in the years and decades to come. Addressing all of these issues is vastly beyond the scope of this article, but we will do so in future online posts on Defense Media Network. For now, and briefly, some of the significant issues regarding UxS that are being discussed/addressed at various levels include:

  • Operating UxS in non-permissive environments
  • Adapting UxS to dynamic environments and missions
  • Airspace de-confliction between manned and unmanned systems
  • Manned-unmanned systems teaming
  • International considerations for unmanned systems
  • Control of armed UxS (DoD, Central Intelligence Agency, or other entities)
  • Manning required to operate UxS
  • Manning required to mine the data collected by UxS

While this list is by no means all-inclusive, it does provide a convenient summary of some of the most important issues surrounding the use of UxS today and in the future. While the first five issues identified above are all important in their own right, the last three issues go directly to the issue of the autonomy of UxS and all that implies. Arguably, the most compelling issue regarding unmanned systems is this: As the quest for autonomy for unmanned systems continues and even accelerates (for all the good reasons that we have reported on previously), what is the potential downside – or dark side – of this quest?

One of the most pressing challenges for the DoD is to reduce the prohibitively burdensome manpower requirements currently necessary to operate UxS.

As described in the most recent (2011) “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap,” there are four levels of autonomy: Human Operated, Human Delegated, Human Supervised, and Fully Autonomous. However, the roadmap notes that in contrast to automatic systems, which simply follow a set of preprogrammed directions to achieve a predetermined goal, autonomous systems “are self-directed toward a goal in that they do not require outside control, but rather are governed by laws and strategies that direct their behavior.”

One of the most pressing challenges for the DoD is to reduce the prohibitively burdensome manpower requirements currently necessary to operate UxS. Another is to provide UxS with resiliency when operating in environments where human control is limited. A third factor is the increasing need for UxS to operate in unpredictable environments and to conduct complex and changing missions.


The Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight May 22, 2013, from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif. The 80-minute flight successfully demonstrated control systems that allow Triton to operate autonomously. Triton is designed to fly surveillance missions up to 24 hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles, allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles. The system’s advanced suite of sensors can detect and automatically classify different types of ships. Northrop Grumman photo by Alex Evers

To better understand this compelling need to “reduce the prohibitively burdensome manpower requirements currently necessary to operate UxS,” it is important to understand the costs of manpower to the U.S. military. Military manpower comprises the largest part of the TOC of military systems across all the services. Additionally, military manpower costs are the fastest growing accounts, even as the total number of military men and women decrease. According to a 2012 Office of Management and Budget report, military personnel expenditures have risen from $74 billion dollars in 2001 to $159 billion dollars in 2012, an increase of almost 115 percent.

Lessons learned throughout the development process of most unmanned systems – especially unmanned aerial systems – demonstrate that UxS can actually increase manning requirements. Indeed, the Air Force has estimated that the MQ-1 Predator requires a crew of about 168 personnel, while the MQ-9 Reaper requires a crew of 180 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk relies on 300 people to operate it. As Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove has emphasized, “The No. 1 manning problem in our Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms.” Furthermore, this is not a challenge restricted to the U.S. Air Force, but one faced by all of the services.

The data overload challenge generated by the proliferation of unmanned aircraft and their sensors has created its own set of manning issues.

Compounding the TOC issue, the data overload challenge generated by the proliferation of unmanned aircraft and their sensors has created its own set of manning issues. In fact, the situation has escalated so quickly that many doubt that hiring additional analysts will help ease the burden of sifting through thousands of hours of video. A former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff complained that a single Air Force Predator can collect enough video in one day to occupy 19 analysts, noting, “Today an analyst sits there and stares at ‘Death TV’ for hours on end, trying to find the single target or see something move. It’s just a waste of manpower.”

With the prospect of future flat or declining military budgets, the rapidly rising costs of military manpower, and the increased DoD emphasis on total ownership costs, the mandate to move beyond the “many operators, one-joystick, one-vehicle” paradigm that has existed during the past decades for most UxS is clear and compelling. The DoD and the services are united in their efforts to increase the autonomy of UxS as a primary means of reducing manning and achieving acceptable total ownership costs. But this drive for autonomy begs the question as to what this imperative to increase autonomy comports and what, if any, downside occurs if we push UxS autonomy too far. Is there an unacceptable “dark side” to too much autonomy?

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