Defense Media Network

Unmanned Systems’ Future Lies in Autonomy

Smart autonomous systems will leverage brains over brawn


Technology as an Enabler

When most people think of UxS, the word “technology” immediately comes to mind. And as military futurist Max Boot famously wrote in his best-selling book, War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World, “My view is that technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution.” Indeed, in the past quarter-century, the U.S. military has embraced a wave of technological change that has constituted a revolution in military affairs and created “the art of the possible,” and one of the most rapidly growing areas of technology innovation involves autonomous systems.

Proteus Global Hawk UAV

As part of the DARPA/NASA/Northrop Grumman KQ-X program, a NASA Proteus aircraft formates with a NASA Global Hawk UAV as part of an autonomous in-flight refueling demonstration, another vital step toward more autonomous unmanned systems. Northrop Grumman photo

For autonomous systems, the development and employment of these systems has evolved to the point that they are already creating possibilities that did not exist as little as a few years ago. This remarkable transformation has been supported by the equally rapid pace of technological research and development taking place in many places, but perhaps most prominently in industry, often in partnership with DoD laboratories. At the U.S. Navy’s level, then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead demonstrated his commitment to developing a long-term vision for unmanned systems when he directed the 28th Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group to spend one year examining this issue.

However, for unmanned systems to reach their full potential, important command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) considerations must be addressed. Simply put, the costs of military manpower mandate that we move beyond today’s “one man, one joystick, one vehicle” paradigm. If the vision of unmanned systems is to be fully realized, the focus must shift to their “intelligence” – that is, to their C4ISR capabilities – rather than remain on the platforms themselves.

The “way ahead” for future unmanned systems is to enable one operator to effectively control multiple autonomous systems and for these systems to ultimately provide their own command and control and self-synchronization, thereby allowing these systems to become truly autonomous.


Manpower as a “Dis-enabler”

Even after the failure of DASH, the U.S. Navy continued to experiment with fixed- and rotary-wing drones. By the mid- to late 1980s, the Navy was experimenting with fixed-wing drones on board Navy ships at sea with UAS systems like the RQ-2 Pioneer. I personally participated in Pioneer testing in 1990 while executive officer of USS New Orleans (LPH 11). A three-aircraft Pioneer detachment came aboard for a week of extensive testing, making dozens of takeoffs and landings on board New Orleans. In the week of testing, only one of the three drones did the “DASH thing” and crashed into the ocean in spite of the furious attempts of the operator to get it safely back on board the ship. “Oh, don’t worry, that’s about par for the course,” the Pioneer detachment officer in charge assured us.

But what has stuck with me for more than two decades after this event was not the Pioneer crash, but – and perhaps presaging where UxS systems are today – the legions of people who came aboard with the Pioneer aircraft, more than three dozen of them. The manpower “footprint” that came with that small detachment, while admittedly including some extra test-and-evaluation personnel, was enormous. That may have been affordable more than two decades ago – but it is not affordable today in a declining defense budget where personnel costs are the predominant driver in each of the services’ top-line budgets. Indeed, the indisputable fact remains that the biggest – and most rapidly rising – cost of vehicles, ships, aircraft, and systems is manpower, which makes up close to 70 percent of the total ownership cost (TOC) of service platforms.

Both Roughead and the current CNO, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, have spoken extensively regarding the challenges the Navy will need to address as it integrates unmanned vehicles into its force structure, emphasizing the need to allow one sailor to control multiple systems in an attempt to lower total ownership costs. This link between increased autonomy and decreased TOC is the key to making UxS affordable.

While this conundrum is a challenge for all the military services, it is perhaps most challenging for the Navy. While most of the support needs of UxS operators for those systems operated from a land base are met “off the books,” every UxS operator aboard a Navy ship must be looked after. Each person has a bunk, must be fed, and generates administrative and overhead requirements, all of which add weight and space and more often more personnel to these ships. In last generation’s Navy with ships with robust manning, there was some flexibility to somehow make this all work. But with today’s – and especially tomorrow’s – optimally manned ships, the manpower challenge is especially acute.

It is not clear that industry is being sufficiently incentivized to limit the number of people it takes to operate a given “unmanned” system. But it is imperative that this be done and done soon.

It will be important to leverage the direction in the most recent “Unmanned Systems Roadmap” regarding affordability by limiting the number of operators needed to employ unmanned air, ground, surface, and subsurface autonomous vehicles. Unless or until this happens, given spiraling manpower costs across DoD, autonomous systems will become increasingly unaffordable.

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