Do Drones Have a Future?


Thirteen years ago today the Predator drone saw its first armed reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan. Since then, the U.S. military drone fleet has grown by leaps and bounds. The U.S. Air Force has scores of Predators and Reapers stationed around the globe 24/7, high-altitude drones like Global Hawk patrol the stratosphere, and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have thousands of small hand-launched unmanned aircraft to support ground troops.

The future, though, looks less favorable.

Budget cuts and bureaucratic resistance are squeezing unmanned aircraft programs. “Next-gen” aircraft show no signs of making it off the drawing board. With this in mind, it’s worth taking stock of what the prospects look like for future unmanned aircraft in the U.S. military. Each military service has its unique needs and bureaucratic hurdles, so below is a service-by-service rundown of the most important needs and gaps. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every Gray Eagle, Puma, Raven, Scan Eagle, Global Hawk, Triton, Fire Scout, and Sentinel out there, just a quick summary of the most important debates about where unmanned aircraft are going in the future.

Air Force

The Air Force has embraced unmanned aircraft (or “remotely piloted aircraft,” as the Air Force prefers to call them) for reconnaissance and counterterrorism strikes. Other missions, less so. On paper, the vision is there. The Air Force’s new Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Vector released this spring is an outstanding vision for the future of unmanned aircraft.  The problem is it isn’t funded. The document talks about “next-gen RPA,” but such a thing does not yet exist and the Air Force doesn’t seem to be making any progress in funding one. There are pilots inside the Air Force who have experience with unmanned aircraft and see their value, but that cadre of officers is still fighting an uphill battle against the larger bureaucracy that has a hard time envisioning a future without pilots in cockpits. As just one data point, the highest-ranking Air Force officer in charge of unmanned systems requirements, a full Colonel position, has been a terminal job for three out of the past four people who held it. The holder of that position has typically moved on to retirement, not promotion into higher-level jobs. In other words, working unmanned systems isn’t exactly a fast track to making general officer.

The Air Force is taking a look at small unmanned aircraft as part of a new “flight plan” they are developing. This has a great deal of potential to expand how the Air Force is thinking about unmanned aircraft if it includes the potential for swarms of low-cost expendable platforms. This could include air vehicles that don’t look like traditional aircraft, like the miniature air-launched decoy (MALD). These air vehicles could be recoverable or disposable. But it’s not clear if the new flight plan will include them. There are major conceptual hurdles within the Air Force to harnessing the full potential of unmanned systems. The idea of building large numbers of low-cost expendable platforms is quite a paradigm shift. Another big one is the idea of multi-aircraft control where one person controls multiple air vehicles at the same time. So far, there has been resistance in some quarters in the Air Force to multi-aircraft control, but it will be necessary if the Air Force is to harness the advantages of swarming.


The U.S. Navy’s next-generation unmanned aircraft program has been its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft. There’s been an ongoing debate about the scope of the Navy’s program, with some significant scrutiny from the Hill. Some have accused the Navy of deliberately downscoping the requirements for UCLASS so as to not compete with the Navy’s next-generation manned fighter program, F/A-XX.  Unfortunately, as a result the Navy’s current vision of UCLASS also isn’t very useful. What the Navy needs is a long-range penetrating aircraft, as threats to the carrier will push it increasingly further from shore, beyond the range of existing aircraft. UCLASS will also need to be highly stealthy to penetrate advanced air defenses. Yet the current specifications for UCLASS are for a modestly stealthy maritime surveillance aircraft that will not have the stealth and payload necessary to be truly relevant against more sophisticated adversaries. The Department of Defense (DoD) has put on hold releasing its final requirements to industry, so there is still hope that DoD senior leaders will overrule the Navy and put the UCLASS program back on a more sensible track. The fate of UCLASS is a canary-in-the-coal-mine for whether DoD is serious about addressing future threats, or is willing to sacrifice future relevance in order to preserve pilots’ jobs.

Marine Corps

As Marines return to their core mission of expeditionary, amphibious operations, they also have the need for an upgraded unmanned aircraft. While they don’t need a stealthy combat drone like the Navy or Air Force, they do need a long-endurance surveillance aircraft, like today’s Predator or Reaper, to cover Marines when they go ashore. Right now, the U.S. military only has the ability to fly Predators and Reapers from land bases. This means, without a new system, the Marines may not have those capabilities in the future depending on where they are operating. The Marines have a very small sea-based drone, the RQ-21 Blackjack, but it is not remotely on the same scale as a Reaper-like aircraft. Without their own organic sea-based capability, the Corps will have to rely on the Air Force or Navy to provide persistent airborne surveillance to protect Marines on the ground. Historically, Marines have been reluctant to rely on the other Services, instead keeping all of the capabilities needed to support Marines within the Corps. The key challenge will be that there isn’t any excess space on Marine amphibious assault (LHA/LHD) ships, so any added unmanned aircraft will mean giving something else up. That’s a hurdle that the Navy hasn’t been able to overcome on its carriers, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Marine Corps ends up any differently. Ultimately, when the Corps looks to the future capability mix they’ll need to support Marines ashore, it’s hard to imagine that unmanned aircraft are not a necessary part of that mix, and that the Marines won’t want to own those aircraft themselves. Right now, though, those discussions about investing in a large unmanned aircraft for persistent surveillance don’t even seem to be happening.


Perhaps surprisingly, the Army is furthest ahead of all of the Services in terms of integrating unmanned aircraft into their aviation organization and doctrine. The Army has adopted a concept of “manned-unmanned teaming” for its aviation assets, pairing unmanned Gray Eagle and Shadow aircraft with manned Apache helicopters. While the Army has been talking about manned-unmanned teaming for several years, the concept really came to fruition when budget cuts forced the retirement of the Kiowa helicopter. In the future, a manned-unmanned team of Gray Eagles, Shadows, and Apaches will perform the Kiowa’s armed reconnaissance mission. This is more efficient and, as the Army fleshes out doctrine and tactics more completely, will also allow new concepts of operation as the unmanned aircraft can be sent forward for more dangerous missions. In a truly groundbreaking innovation, the Apache pilots will actually have the ability to task and control the unmanned aircraft directly from their helicopters.

Moving forward, the Army will need to evolve to a model of cooperative multi-aircraft control where one person controls several aircraft at the same time. In order to make this feasible without overloading the human operator, the aircraft will have to operate autonomously and cooperatively with the human overseeing the “swarm” as a whole. Swarms of self-cooperating unmanned aircraft could be used for a range of missions, including surveillance, communications relay, cargo resupply, electronic attack, and close air support. In order to get there, the Army needs to be doing experiments with swarming now to learn what is possible technologically, how to use a swarm, how to control it, and where technology needs to be further developed. While no one in the Army is opposed to such a concept, the funding isn’t there yet to develop the swarm.

A Future for Unmanned Aircraft?

In the future, unmanned aircraft will need to be more autonomous and more cooperative, allowing one person to control a swarm of vehicles. Some of them will need to be stealthy, but some may be low-cost systems for other missions that don’t need stealth. A concept that has not yet been fully explored is the idea of using swarms of low-cost, expendable systems to saturate and overwhelm an enemy’s defenses. Ideally, the Air Force’s small, unmanned aircraft plan that is under development will explore that idea. But even if it does so successfully, it won’t come to fruition without funding.

The obstacles to getting where each of the services needs to be go beyond a lack of funding, however. While unmanned aircraft have been embraced for niche roles like reconnaissance, parts of the military resist their incorporation into core mission areas. While the Air Force has had enough experience with unmanned aircraft to build up an advocacy group, they don’t have a critical mass yet, and funding a next-gen unmanned combat aircraft is quite clearly not high on the Air Force’s priority list as an institution. The Air Force is moving out this year with concepts for a sixth-gen fighter aircraft, the F-X, but next-gen unmanned aircraft keep ending up below the cut line during budget season. Within the Navy the situation is far worse, with no internal advocacy group for unmanned aircraft. While there are sailors who see the value in unmanned systems, there hasn’t been enough experience yet to build up a community like there is in the Air Force. The Marine Corps is in a similar position, where bringing an unmanned aircraft onto the deck of an amphibious assault ship will mean taking off a manned aircraft, and there is a strong constituency to resist such a move and none to push for it.

There is also cultural resistance in some circles to new, perhaps uncomfortable, concepts of operation like multi-aircraft control. The services have different cultures, and so react to some concepts differently. Piloting is central to Air Force culture and identity, and concepts like multi-aircraft control that would change the paradigm of one-pilot-to-one-aircraft meet headstrong resistance. The situation is very different in the Army, where piloting is not central to Army culture. The Army even refers to the people controlling its unmanned aircraft as “operators,” not pilots. To the Army, unmanned aircraft are merely another piece of equipment; nothing about them threatens the Army’s identity. (When unmanned systems encroach on core Army functions, it is another matter.)

These distinctions extend beyond just terminology and into choices about what technology is adopted. Army unmanned aircraft have a higher degree of automation than Air Force unmanned aircraft, including automated takeoff and landing, which Air Force Predators and Reapers don’t have. Automating takeoffs and landings would be safer and save money, since most accidents happen on takeoff and landing. But the Air Force isn’t investing in it. If you have the paradigm of a pilot as a person in direct physical control of an aircraft, then trusting that control to automation and having the pilot direct the aircraft at the mission-level might be uncomfortable. In the face of this discomfort, a “go slow” approach might be tempting.

That would be a mistake. As the saying goes, “the enemy gets a vote.”

Twenty-three nations either have or are developed armed unmanned aircraft. Many more will have access to cheap, off-the-shelf commercial drones that could be assembled into swarms to target U.S. ships and bases. While sophisticated stealthy aircraft will be available only to a few nations, some of those nations might be American competitors.

The unmanned revolution is barreling forward, with or without the U.S. military onboard. Much of the innovation in robotics is being driven by the commercial sector, meaning it will be widely available to everyone. The U.S. military is used to competing in a world where some of the most game-changing innovations – such as stealth, GPS, and precision-guided weapons – come from the U.S. defense sector. It is ill-prepared for a world where such technologies are widely available to all. Staying ahead will require coming up with the most innovative uses of new technology, and being able to rapidly incorporate commercial sector innovations. In order to make that happen, though, unmanned aircraft will need funding and advocates inside the bureaucracy.

While the United States currently has a lead in unmanned aircraft, that lead is fragile. Drones have a future, regardless of what the United States does. The only question is whether the United States will retain its edge, or cede the lead in unmanned aircraft to others.


Paul Scharre is a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). From 2008-2013 he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on policies for unmanned and autonomous systems. He is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment and has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery