Dawn or Dusk for Unmanned Systems?

January 8, 2014

Over the past decade the media has churned out the story of a “drone war” while missing a broader revolution in military affairs reshaping warfare.  Yes, drones have killed terrorists, enemy combatants, and unfortunately a few civilians caught in warzones, and the definition of what a “warzone” is has become blurry under the broad authorities in the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.  But the majority of these remotely-piloted aircraft were operated by the Department of Defense (DoD) under the same rules of engagement as a B-1 bomber, an F-16 fighter aircraft, or an AC-130 gunship over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

But for every launch of a Hellfire missile against a target, there have been tens of thousands of hours of quiet operations that have not taken but, rather, saved countless U.S. and foreign lives.  In his interim report investigating the use of remotely-piloted aircraft, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism observed, “If used in strict compliance with the principles of humanitarian law, they [(drones)] can reduce the risk of civilian casualties by significantly improving overall situational awareness.”  Robots controlled via satellite links or line-of-sight systems by human operators sending back real-time video and other intelligence have reshaped battlefield intelligence, as well as the ability to fuse that intelligence with real-time operations to achieve extremely targeted effects.  This key development in the way wars are fought has enormous untapped potential, not only for aircraft, but also on land, at sea, and undersea, where study and investment to date has been limited.

Even within the Pentagon, this dramatic change has been largely ignored or dismissed as a relic of the “last war.”  The unmanned systems community remains today a pariah group, stuck somewhere between the intelligence and reconnaissance community, out-there DARPA thinkers, and wonky dreamers.  Many in this group compare the challenges they face today to the rejection of airpower by the Navy and Army after World War I (resulting in the famous court-martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell).  Absent real intellectual attention matched with resourcing and experimentation to begin to truly understand the possibilities of the technology, the U.S. lead in unmanned systems is headed for the scrapyard.

On December 23, 2013, DoD quietly rolled out its FY2013-FY2038 Unmanned Systems Roadmap, ahead of the Quadrennial Defense Review and Fiscal Year 2015 budget.  The report is a substantial update from the last version released in 2011, and does much to meet the 2003 congressional requirement that attempted to discipline and rationalize DoD’s approach to unmanned technology.

When Congress enacted the requirement, DoD was buying up as much unmanned technology as it could get its hands on in order to confront a growing insurgency and counter improvised explosive devices decimating troops in Iraq.  Absent the winning of hearts and minds, DoD needed to figure out who was trying to kill its ground forces, how, where, and when. Unmanned systems provided a unique way to do that, from the squad to the division level.

The latest DoD roadmap demonstrates growing sophistication across the Pentagon in articulating the potential of unmanned systems in the air, ground, and maritime domains with a vision for what missions beyond counterterrorism and the “dirty, dull, and dangerous” exist for unmanned systems. The document also identifies approaches for better and more affordable joint organization and acquisition.  Unfortunately, the roadmap paints an overly rosy picture of what is to come.  Continued U.S. dominance over the next decade will be undermined by defense budget cuts, trends in global supply and demand, and DoD’s lack of a coherent, resourced strategy for unmanned systems development, procurement, and operational integration.

The Unmanned Systems Roadmap follows the current official DoD habit of underemphasizing or ignoring the unyielding effects of the Budget Control Act (BCA) on future capacity and modernization.  Spending by DoD on unmanned systems has decreased over the past three years (including a 33.4 percent decrease from FY13 to the likely FY14 level), and the decline will continue in the years ahead.  Despite transformative success in meeting the needs of theater and combatant commanders over the past decade for a range of missions, unmanned systems have only a small constituency among senior general and flag officers.  When asked to make trade-offs, as DoD repeatedly has been since 2010, unmanned systems are routinely among the first on the chopping block (particularly when the alternatives are personnel and readiness or major force structure elements).

Moreover, as the Unmanned Systems Roadmap acknowledges, few unmanned systems are current programs of record; nearly all are funded through the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) account, which is set to dramatically shrink over the next few years.  Unmanned systems are therefore uniquely vulnerable from a budgetary standpoint.

Put in real world terms, the U.S. Air Force will look to significantly cut its operation of Predator and Reaper aircraft, and innovative programs such as the U.S. Navy’s X-47B unmanned aircraft system (which has proven its ability to land autonomously on a carrier) may never be fielded.  The U.S. Marine Corps and Army will continue to operate rudimentary unmanned ground vehicles for very limited tasks, unable to leverage a range of available technologies in a new generation of systems that could potentially save American lives.  If things continue as they have over the past few years, the U.S. military will have the same unmanned systems in 2025 as it does today—but significantly fewer.

Meanwhile, others will catch up to, or perhaps even eclipse, U.S. capability.  As DoD decreases its funding in research, development, test, and evaluation and procurement of unmanned systems over the next decade, the rest of the world is set to sharply increase its investment.  The United States has also imposed upon itself onerous restrictions for the export of unmanned aerial systems and has shared its largest and most capable systems with only a handful of allies and partners, despite strong demand from core NATO and Asian allies.  This impasse, generated by mismanagement in the executive and legislative branches, has created frustration among U.S. partners, many of whom as a consequence have undertaken indigenous production or looked to third-party countries (Israel has been a major exporter in the absence of U.S. willingness to do so).  Even more worrying, potential U.S. adversaries including China, Russia and Iran are aggressively developing unmanned systems technology and exporting it to third countries of concern.

To date, much of U.S. acquisition of unmanned technologies has been driven by urgent wartime requirements.  As the United States rethinks its force structure after the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, it will need to think about what to keep, what to shed, and what to change.  Looking to this future and acknowledging an austere fiscal climate, the Unmanned Systems Roadmap states, “[M]odernization of current capabilities will dominate, and limited development of new capabilities will likely focus on smaller numbers of higher end platforms capable of operating in more contested air environments.”

This description is dangerously ambiguous.  The challenge in determining an appropriate investment and force structure strategy for unmanned systems moving forward is to understand where the technology is most useful and mature, where it is most promising, and how existing military concepts of operation need to evolve to fully exploit it.  DoD lacks such an approach.  The Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System that will guide DoD’s decisions in peacetime is best described as dysfunctional, limiting, and unimaginative.

In a recent report on “U.S. Navy Employment Options for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs)” RAND presented a straightforward methodology for identifying the naval missions and functions for which unmanned vehicles may be better suited than manned variants.  This basic framework, applied across DoD and across the military departments, would be a helpful starting point to gauge the utility of current platforms, avoid duplication of effort between services, and identify promising areas for investment.

Understanding the true potential of unmanned systems in the air, ground, and maritime domains will also require significant experimentation.  The current roadmap correctly recommends that greater study should be made of teaming unmanned with manned systems, expanding system-of-systems approaches, and understanding how to best operate in a denied environment.  But again, such concerted effort will be impossible without a strategy and resources to execute that strategy—neither of which are sufficiently articulated in the Unmanned Systems Roadmap.  DoD runs on a very structured planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process.  The Unmanned Systems Roadmap carries no official weight in that process, and it is not clear how it informs other guidance documents that do.  DoD needs to truly integrate unmanned systems into its institutional processes to fully leverage their potential.

Finally, DoD must articulate how it will work with the defense industry and the broader commercial sector both to sustain an industrial base capable of meeting future unmanned systems needs and to move forward with technology development during fiscally lean times.  As demonstrated by Jeff Bezos’ dramatic announcement of the potential for drone delivery of Amazon packages, interest in unmanned systems is growing in the commercial sector.  DoD struggles broadly to incorporate innovation from outside defense industry, so while the potential exists for it to leverage this growing commercial activity during a downtime in its own investment in development of the technology, it’s not clear how it will succeed in doing so.

While the defense policy community is either focused on the drone wars or the next war, they are missing the dawn of a revolution in unmanned systems.  And while the Unmanned Systems Roadmap is rich in content for those who follow this technology closely, it is divorced from the grim reality of U.S. backsliding in what is likely to be one of the most important technologies of the coming decades.  Absent a next step of an actual strategy matched to resources, the United States will go from a position of strength in unmanned systems to one of weakness.


Samuel J. Brannen is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where his research focuses on U.S. defense and national security strategy and policy, unmanned systems, and U.S.-Turkey relations.  He previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.  You can follow him on Twitter @RealSamBrannen.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery