Beyond UCLASS: Preparing the Navy for Next Generation Warfare

USS Halyburton (FFG 40)

The United States is the world’s leading military power in large part because it employs both the best military technologies in the world and the best-trained force to effectively use those technologies. Yet staying ahead is no easy task. Just as in the corporate world, the same ways of doing business that led to success in the past can, especially during periods of rapid technological change, place future superiority at risk.

Critical to maintaining the U.S. military’s advantage over the next few decades will be ensuring it has the organizational capital to fully take advantage of and integrate an emerging generation of technologies. An early test may be the U.S. Navy’s pending acquisition decision regarding a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft, the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike program (UCLASS).

Washington’s defense intelligentsia has spent the past year considering how the UCLASS system will evolve. Will the UCLASS be bat-shaped, stealthy, speedy, and packed with kinetic power — everything that the experimental X-47B UCAS-D suggested was possible? Alternatively, will it look more like a dragonfly — focused on an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions with limited strike, akin to existing medium-altitude long-endurance platforms operated by the Army and Air Force today? In recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on the topic, experts drilled into the costs and benefits of the two approaches. Two of the witnesses, Sean Brimley and Bryan McGrath, also took their argument to War on the Rocks. The testimony suggested that the choice the Navy makes on UCLASS may influence the fate of the aircraft carrier in an age of anti-access technologies, and with it U.S. power projection.

That this informed debate on UCLASS is occurring at all is in many ways a welcome and heartening development, but the UCLASS debate should not substitute for a broader consideration of the Navy’s future, and what role unmanned systems will play in it.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus repeatedly and rightly argues that “platforms matter” and “people matter.” Similarly, military bureaucracies, training, and experimentation also matter a great deal. The Navy is not just making a decision on UCLASS, after all, but a whole range of decisions on unmanned systems in the air, on the surface, and underwater, and how these systems will interact with its existing strategy, force structure, doctrine, and concepts of operation. As the Navy renders its decisions, its civilian and military leaders should think holistically about how best to organize to take advantage of nascent military-technical revolution cutting across the fields of military robotics, multi-intelligence sensors, data links, remote-piloting, autonomy, and other convergent technologies.

Thinking holistically requires serious strategic and intellectual commitment in the best of times, and potentially major investment and force structure trade-offs during periods of defense austerity like the present. To begin with, the choice about UCLASS options is not just one about naval force structure, but one with potentially transformative and disruptive consequences. The Navy must ask if it is willing to pay the price organizationally, as well as financially, and stay the course to realize the full potential of the higher-end UCLASS option: one that can operate in contested airspace against high-tech foes. For instance, if the price tag grows and sequestration sets in again, will the Navy trade fighter aircraft or ships for UCLASS? And will carrier aviators, a politically powerful constituency within the Navy, be content with smaller numbers of manned pilots catching tailhooks over time? Change will not come cheap, and it could break organizations and careers.

This is important because it gets to the central question of why some countries and militaries succeed in fielding innovative military technologies, while others delay or even fail?

As one of us discovered and wrote about in The Diffusion of Military Power, the ultimate ability for a military to take advantage of innovative technologies, especially when they have the capacity to disrupt the international balance of power, comes from building “adoption capacity.” Adoption capacity refers not only to the level of financial intensity required to adopt a military innovation, something the United States has in spades (even given sequestration), but also the degree of organizational capital, or the ability to change, required to adopt an innovation. In other words, success in an era of rapid technological change will require bureaucratic willingness to prioritize and reorganize across capability areas. It is a matter of willful intent and follow-through.

Despite past dabbling in unmanned aerial systems, the U.S. Navy is a late-mover among the services in adopting unmanned technologies. Its current approach has been to integrate the platforms into existing structures and organizations; for example, cycling pilots from manned aircraft such as the P-3/P-8 into seats piloting the unmanned MQ-4 Triton and having manned helicopter pilots drive the unmanned MQ-8 Fire Scout.

At the same time, the Navy has demonstrated a commitment to exploring the unique attributes of unmanned systems with the creation of the program executive officer (a one-star flag officer billet) for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. To further its institutional commitment, the Navy could create an office to focus exclusively on experimentation and operational concepts for unmanned systems within its strategy and policy bureaus. Such an office could explore whether the Navy is better off thinking of unmanned systems as a one-for-one replacement for existing manned capability, as opposed to exploring new form factors or approaches to force structure (for example, small, cheap, and numerous unmanned systems).

Such an office would have precedent in one of the Navy’s greatest innovation success stories. In the 1920s, naval carrier aviation in the United States was itself born by creating a separate organization, the Bureau of Aeronautics, to protect nascent carrier air. Combined with experimentation both in the field and at the Naval War College, this eventually wrested control of the Navy from a battleship community opposed to the idea of carriers, which are now the symbol of modern maritime power, while battleships have faded away. Such radical change and the establishment of a new naval bureau may not be necessary. But it is vital for the Navy to understand whether current organizations, officer career paths, and other variables may need to change to fully exploit the manifest and latent military advantages of unmanned systems. The same is true for naval surface and subsurface vessels. Arguably, the Navy should consider potential synergies that would break down traditional divisions between surface, subsurface, and aviation communities in the context of unmanned systems — not to mention divisions between intelligence and strike. The right organizational solution is not yet clear. The Navy should study such issues even more closely as it potentially moves forward with acquisition of the UCLASS platform, as well as other systems in the future.

As one of us has previously argued in these pages, this is only the dawn of an age of unmanned systems. Whether this age belongs to the United States or to other countries will depend upon the ability of the United States to build the adoption capacity to take advantage of the disruptive potential of unmanned systems before someone else does. Simply understanding the rapid technological change underway and the potential organizational consequences — let alone capitalizing upon it within a Department of Defense acquisition system that is almost universally derided — will prove an enormous challenge. The UCLASS decision is one of many forks in the road toward the future of the U.S. Navy. And the Navy should use this opportunity to think deeply about how to build its capacity on the issue of unmanned systems technology more broadly. There is no silver bullet for the challenges ahead for the Navy in this era of rapid technological change and more constrained resources. Successful military change will only happen through sound strategy and committed execution.


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.  Follow him on Twitter: @RealSamBrannen.

Michael C. Horowitz is a senior associate in the International Security Program at CSIS and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.  Follow him on Twitter: @mchorowitz.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery