Your Grandfather’s Manned-Unmanned Teaming: Looking Back to Stay Ahead

April 4, 2017

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Robots are boring. Centaurs are cool. The U.S. Department of Defense’s third offset strategy conceptualizes manned-unmanned teaming, human-machine collaborations, human-assisted operations, and combat teaming as various manifestations of a centaur. In this strategy, emerging battle networks will integrate the best of humans with the best of machines by exploiting commercial advances in automation and narrow artificial intelligence to achieve a position of comparative advantage relative to adversaries. A profusion of academic and inter-service discussions have stimulated a wider dialogue on how these centaurs might change the character of future war and enable the first mover to shift the military balance in its favor.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, human-machine teaming is not new. In fact, some of the first experiments with this concept took place in World War II. On September 27, 1944, a U.S. Navy TDR-1 Assault Drone destroyed a Japanese anti-aircraft battery located on Bougainville Island in the Solomon Islands. Among other World War II centaur applications, the Joint Army-Navy Experimental and Testing Board experimented with unmanned amphibious tractors as part of a new concept for ship-to-shore maneuver. Proposed concepts included littoral mine clearance, reduction of fortified positions, and obscuration for follow-on manned waves.

Revisiting these early experiments and concepts reframes the perceived novelty of unmanned systems in the contemporary discourse. The roots of unmanned systems and combat teaming on the battlefield reach much further back in history than widely realized, indicating a well-entrenched tendency of humankind’s pursuit of new technologies to achieve a position of advantage on the battlefield.

Building on the first installment of the “Next War” series, this historical examination illuminates converging tendencies that led to the emergence of unmanned systems innovation, and it then extrapolates implications for the third offset strategy. First, despite humankind’s unbridled fascination with technology, the essence of war has remained a clash of human wills. Seen from this perspective, the real value offered from recent technological advances to achieve a relative advantage lies in human-machine collaboration to enhance the effectiveness of human warfighters, rather than to replace them. Secondly, studying the pioneers of unmanned systems reveals that creating formal and informal networks to cross-cut bureaucratic boundaries and connecting creative thinkers with influential leaders, experimenters, and brokers serve as critical enablers for innovating future concepts.

Humankind’s Quest for Unmanned Systems

Fascination with unmanned systems for war traces to early recorded history. In one instance, as depicted in the third-century-BCE poem and 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, Greek mythology envisioned Talos – a giant, bronze automaton to protect the island of Crete. Nearly 2000 years later in the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci, designed a proto-mechanical knight. In the 19th century, Nikola Tesla grandfathered the genesis of modern unmanned systems innovation, which launched the discourse into the 20th century: Why Not the Land Torpedo? (1917), Wireless-Controlled Battleship (1928), Drones–Prelude to “Push-Button” Warfare? (1946), Robots for 1965 (1961), and Ready for Robot Recon (1966).

The Driver of Unmanned Systems Innovation

Following the stalemate of trench warfare of World War I, restoring maneuver to the battlefield emerged as the primary driver of change. From 1914 to 1918, infantry-centric militaries confronted fortified enemy positions armed with newly adopted machine guns and artillery surrounded by barbed wire, mines, walls, and ditches. In 1932, British soldier and historian Basil Henry Liddell Hart lamented these harsh realities and discussed the post-World War I innovation of armored tanks and mechanized vehicles:

[S]oldiers may begin to ask themselves whether eight hundred slow-moving and non-bullet-proof riflemen are necessary as well. They may feel that more machines and fewer men would give greater chances of success…

Liddell Hart contemplated unmanned systems on the battlefield of the future, stating:

Even to-day aircraft are the most effective and economic means of long-range bombardment. And the advent of wireless control of such machines, dispensing with the need for a costly human crew, will immensely augment their advantage.

Liddell Hart envisioned unmanned systems would enable greater survivability and increased range of fire support to restore maneuver and break the stalemate of World War I.

Drivers of New Technologies

From the zeitgeist of scientific discovery and emerging genre of science fiction, futurists such as Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, and Hugo Gernsback socialized thought provoking ideas that influenced novel ambitions. Tesla’s 1898 Teleautomaton demonstration marked the world’s first remotely controlled device. This milestone signaled the emergence of what were later called “robots.” As evidenced by the first documented radio-controlled automobile, and a Japanese unmanned tank, periodicals circulated the latest scientific discoveries and works of fiction that perpetuated scientific sentiment. By the time Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein started writing in 1939, science fiction had arrived and influenced a generation of visionaries.

These forums informed military innovation. Based on the converging trajectories of advancing technology and humankind’s quest for unmanned systems, Tesla forecasted in a 1921 interview,

War of the Future…will be conducted by…Machines of destruction more terrible than anything concocted by the master minds behind the “World War.” Armies and navies will sail under the ocean and thru the skies–with not a man onboard.

True to Tesla’s extrapolation, all the major world powers of the interwar period pursued unmanned systems in their research and development efforts. H. R. Everett’s Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II offers 655 pages of examples that further underscore the contributions by the early pioneers from this era. American unmanned innovations provide the following lessons and implications for the third offset strategy.

Formal and Informal Networks: Innovation Multipliers

Seeking to adapt to the modern battlefield, the U.S. military first experimented with centaurs in World War I.  The U.S. Navy’s Naval Consulting Board provided institutional support to identify and invest in emerging technologies. One of the best innovation vectors emerged from informal networks, or social circles, of visionaries who debated new ideas. Around the same time as his 1898 Teleautomaton, Tesla shared a concept for an aerial torpedo with fellow inventor Peter Cooper Hewitt. Two decades later, Hewitt’s path intersected with Elmer Ambrose Sperry during his unaided stabilized flight demonstration. Hewitt engaged Sperry to co-develop Tesla’s idea in what became known as the Curtiss-Sperry Aerial Torpedo. The Tesla-Hewitt-Sperry connection, supported by the Naval Consulting Board, eventually produced the first successful unmanned aerial vehicle flight on March 6, 1918. This example illuminates the value of formal and informal networks, and the importance to connect maverick thinkers that challenge the realm of the possible with champions that recognize and support their endeavors.

Applied to the third offset strategy, contemporary exemplars foster an environment conducive for networking in innovation and merit reinforcement to expand their momentum. Innovation challenges crowdsource innovative thinking. They also provide a forum to make new connections that perpetuate the dialogue beyond the scope of the competition. Supporting science fiction workshops by the Army and Marines, and incorporating books such as Ghost Fleet to service reading lists, stimulates service members to expand their conceptualization of future war beyond current operational approaches. Advanced Studies Programs network officers together from across the services to create bureaucratic space for innovative thinking. Similarly in Forging the Sword, Benjamin M. Jensen discusses the importance of formal and informal networks in terms of incubators and advocacy networks. Incubators, such as Marine Corps University’s Advanced Studies Program, provide protected spaces from organizational bureaucracy to allow for creative thinking about new theories of victory in future conflicts. Advocacy networks, either formal or informal, connect these creative thinkers with the larger organization to discuss, debate, and infect the wider community with new ideas. Beyond cocktail mixers, these initiatives foster an environment conducive to networking, which extends the discourse and embraces the interactive dynamics of military organizations.

Experimentation Breeds Innovation

From Tesla’s original conception of an aerial torpedo to Sperry’s milestones during World War I to the first strike by a TDR-1 Assault Drone, the innovation of the first operationalized unmanned aerial vehicle involved a persistent investment of time, resources, and experimentation. Along the way, secondary inventions emerged. Sperry’s Gyroscope enabled stabilized flight and autonomous navigation, important precursors to auto-pilot. By 1939, target drones facilitated improvements in anti-aircraft gunnery, optical fire control systems, proximity fuses, and radar on ships.

By March 1942, drone development incorporated releasable ordnance. Television camera and all-weather radar guidance systems enabled beyond-line-of-sight capabilities. In Operation OPTION and the formation of the Special Air Task Force, the U.S. Navy ordered 1,000 TDR-1 Assault Drones and 162 manned aircraft organized into eighteen squadrons. Manned aircraft would command and control multiple TDR-1 Assault Drones to deliver offensive air support. This concept envisioned the ability to gain the element of surprise and swarm an adversary’s countermeasures while manned aircraft maintained a safe standoff distance. In July 1944, the Special Air Task Force deployed 50 drones and operationalized one of the first unmanned strike concepts. During repeated strikes in support of the assaults on Bougainville and Rabaul from September to October 1944, 29 of 46 Special Air Task Force aircraft recorded strikes on their targets while their manned wingmen safely controlled them from six to eight miles away. The acme of the TDR-1 concept emerged from experimentation and cyclical reinvention that began with Tesla’s vision 50 years earlier.

Applied to the third offset strategy, experimentation ensures validation, modification, and falsification of proposed hypotheses. Innovators may not achieve their original vision. However, their efforts spawn unexpected ideas that may solve the military problems of tomorrow. It is only through experimentation, in the form of current efforts such as the Marine Corps’ Sea Dragon 2025 Initiative, that we get to a future wherein infantry platoons of autonomous systems close with an enemy supported by directed energy artillery. Service chiefs of 2045, serving as company-grade officers today, need experiments to develop new theories of victory for future war.

Innovation Brokers as Liminal Agents of Change

Brokers bridge obstacles between the operational forces and research and development components to accelerate adoption of emerging technologies. A lack of brokers can hinder adoption. Winston Churchill captured this quandary in stating that, “a hiatus exists between inventors who know what they could invent, if they only knew what was wanted, and the soldiers who know or ought to know, what they want, and would ask for it if they only knew how much science could do for them.”

One month after the first strike, the U.S. Navy cancelled Operation Option. Prior to its first deployment, the operational forces remained uninformed about the Special Air Task Force’s potential value. With operational commanders and their staffs focused on current operations, little time remained to support operational experimentation of unproven capabilities. Consequently, after manned platforms enabled the United States to gain momentum in the Pacific, the theater commander and his staff did not fully appreciate the value of a standoff capability for tactical unmanned strikes. The Navy’s lack of foresight to incorporate the Special Air Task Force into a permanent centaur concept provides credence that to implement a revolution in military affairs requires not only technology, but also new tactics, organizational models, and doctrine.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsors the Service Chiefs Fellows Program to immerse military officers into the agency’s innovative technology research. These officers become informal liaisons between the agency and the military services. Increased support and capacity for programs such as this would foster the linkages necessary between the operational forces and research and development components to mature and operationalize future concepts. As people come and go, institutional memory wanes. Expanding the forum would inject fresh energy in the form of young inquisitive officers and researchers to revisit shelved programs of past generations.


Tracing the historical tendencies that led to the emergence of unmanned systems in past wars reveals informative lessons for developing centaur concepts in support of the third offset strategy. Formal and informal networks, experimentation, and brokers remain as critical today as they were in validating innovation prior to and during World War II. While centaur warfare and the integration of unmanned systems did not achieve a sufficient level of maturity by 1945 to achieve a measurable offset, it laid the foundation for subsequent innovation that informs today’s aspirations. A study of this history reveals that the character of future war will likely not emerge from any single visionary. Shared mental models generated from interactive dialogue involving practitioners and theorists, warfighters and inventers, as well as mavericks and champions will expand the realm of the possible. Innovative applications of emerging unmanned technologies offer tremendous potential to achieve a position of comparative advantage relative to adversaries. But in war, driven as it is by a contest of human wills, technology remains a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Andy Macak is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps. An infantry and Middle East foreign area officer, he is currently a student at the Marine Corps University, Command and Staff College.

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual appointment at Marine Corps University and American University, School of International Service.  He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army, 1975-2010.

The views expressed in this article are their own and do not reflect U.S. government policy. This work builds on insights in the 2016/2017 Advanced Studies Program at Marine Corps University.

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