war on the rocks

Technological Identity and Autonomous Systems: Lessons from the Battleship

January 24, 2019

Perhaps one day the glamor of drones will boost military recruitment, but we aren’t there yet. Today, many who operate drones feel resigned to a “second choice” career spent daydreaming of “flying an F-22 around and doing loops and rolls.” For those who don’t have to daydream, the prospect of flying from the ground is anathema. The increasing prevalence of unmanned aerial vehicles will inevitably conflict with what seems to be a reality of military aviation: Many pilots just want to fly.

Seemingly from the moment the Wright brothers touched down at Kitty Hawk, aviators have found a mystique all their own. Technological developments have threatened that mythos for just as long, but never quite as existentially as drones have. Unmanned vehicles will become an increasingly vital part of military aviation; a recent study recommended a tremendous reduction in manned platforms for the carrier air wing of the 2040s. The technological and doctrinal challenges are daunting enough. What are the multitude of naval aviators itching for the thrill of flight to do?

The U.S. Navy has experienced such a shift before. Like aviation, the battleship had once attained a mystique all its own. A century ago, the transition from a navy that prized the battleship to one that prized the aircraft carrier presented a similar assault to sailors’ technological identities — the ways in which those who work with technology come to find a sense of self in its use. Sailors of that era were left with two choices: lament their newfound “second choice” status or fight against the loss of their technological identity. A review of wartime publications in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings journal illustrates how sailors turned to the foundational naval doctrine of Alfred Thayer Mahan to preserve this identity. Viewed through a Mahanian lens, aircraft became an asset for battleships, not their ruin. In this way, sailors came to accept the new naval order. As the Navy heads towards an increasingly autonomous future that similarly threatens its aviators’ technological identities, it should recall how emphasizing the capability-enhancing aspects of disruptive technologies can allay the human challenges of technological transitions.

The Emergence of Technological Identity

Following the publication of his 1890 treatise The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan would become, as former Secretary of War Henry Stimson quipped, “Neptune’s Prophet.” With the fervent reception of his work, Mahan canonized the gospel of sea power, a previously un-elucidated concept that was to orient navies for decades to come. Nations around the world increasingly looked to the battleship as the primary means of naval power. Indeed, the battleship seemed so central to naval capabilities that restricting battleship construction was among the focal points of the Washington Naval Treaty.

As the battleship was becoming entrenched in naval doctrine, the Wright brothers’ humble first flight in 1903 established the notion that aircraft might be useful for warfare. Aviation advocates immediately encountered resistance from those instinctually opposed to the new technology. In boldly claiming that he could not “conceive of any use the fleet will ever have for aircraft,” Adm. William Benson embodied the spirit of the “battleship admiral,” a derisive label for more conservative factions of the Navy. The often vitriolic reaction to aviation speaks to the depth of the battleship’s roots in the organization and the credibility of aviation’s threat.

The conflict between battleships and aircraft developed not only in the strategic space, but also in the hearts of sailors who felt invested in battleships both emotionally and professionally. In 1966, the MIT historian Elting Morison wrote, “the Navy is not only an armed force; it is a society. Men spend their whole lives in it and tend to find the definition of their whole being within it.” The intricacies and quirks of technologies lend themselves to the formation of identity — technological identity. As Ensign W.A. Dyer mused in 1930,

A 32,000-ton superdreadnought may be but a mass of guns and steel to many a layman, but to the Navy man who knows her and lives on her, she is a distinct personality; and few pictures in the Louvre, few pieces of sculpture from ancient Greece, will, in his mind, surpass her in beauty.

The emergence of aviation was not just a threat to the professional stature of battleship sailors. To many, it was an assault on their very being. Some no doubt dragged their heels, as in the case of the battleship admirals, while others likely leapt into aviation’s ascendency. However, many contributors to Proceedings took a more moderate path, intermingling the old and the new. By relying on the same Mahanian doctrine that gave rise to the battleship paradigm, they were able to make space for their technological identities alongside the “new kid on the block.”

Long Live Mahan

The opening salvos of World War II put an end to arguments that naval aviation was not combat-tested. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor stunningly demonstrated aviation’s threat to the battleship paradigm. In response, some Proceedings articles adopted a more sympathetic attitude toward the battleship, rationalizing its existence rather than merely dismissing its competitor. To fill the gap left by the battleship’s retreat, a reinterpretation of Mahanian doctrine emerged. Lt. Cmdr. John Collett, a naval aviator who would later be killed in his Avenger torpedo-bomber during the Battle of Santa Cruz, argued in 1942 that “air power has not displaced sea power — air power is sea power. The principles of naval warfare as laid down by Mahan still hold — only the weapons have changed.”

Likewise, at the end of the war, Cmdr. Russell Smith reflected upon the “continually changing” application of naval strategy and took the holistic view that “sea power is not just ships, not just planes, not just Marine troops, but all of these and more.”

Other authors went beyond mere inclusion of air power within sea power to argue that aircraft further solidified the supremacy of the battleship. For one, they argued that because naval aviation is necessarily tied to surface support, the true power of the Navy lay not in the aircraft that fly off of ships but in the fleet that supported their launch. According to this view, naval aviation empowered the Mahanian paradigm by “extend[ing] the range and power of the surface ships.” Secondly, these writers believed the battleship still filled a vital role that aircraft could never replace. Lt. William Hessler, for instance, saw aircraft as an indiscriminate, brutish tool compared to the more adaptable battleship fleet. Sea power, as mediated through battleships, was “a much more flexible and selective instrument, wherever it [could] be applied.” Some even argued that aircraft helped the battleship fulfill its mission set better. Lt. Franklin Percival believed the proliferation of defensive weapons in World War I complicated the execution of an offensive strike. “Consequently,” he claimed,

the advent of the airplane which facilitates the reversal of this dangerous trend is a development of profound significance for all those who long to witness the return of sea power to its former glory.

In another article, he turned this nostalgia into progressive ambition:

The airplane has not rendered sea power obsolete; on the contrary, it has enabled a fleet to do the old things more effectively and to do new things of which Mahan never dreamed.

Institutional Language and Technological Identity

Elting Morison cautioned against narrowly construed professional identities that might be easily upset by organizational shifts. He implored organizations to create a “unifying agent” between old and new to counteract destabilizing change. For the case of the battleship to aircraft transition, these sailors all found that agent in Mahan’s doctrine. It would have been easy to see the end of Mahan in the emergence of air power. Instead, refocusing on Mahan’s doctrine allowed these sailors to explore how aircraft might expand the capabilities of the battleship. With such a framework, they transitioned more easily to the new technological paradigm than they would have had their technological identities been cast aside. With that in mind, let’s consider the analogous situation of modern-day drones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles pose a similar threat to manned aviation as manned aviation posed to battleships in the last century — their emergence seems to question the very thing that makes a pilot a pilot. Former naval aviator-turned-drone researcher Mary Cummings notes that she “spend[s] a lot of time explaining to pilots that we’re not trying to get rid of their job — it’s just changing.” Overzealous comments like former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ oft-quoted claim that the F-35 would be the “last manned strike fighter” exacerbate the threat of technology and quickly put pilots on the defensive about their value. For all the time spent discussing drone development and manned/unmanned integration, far less weight is given to the visceral fear that one day being an aviator might not involve any aviating.

The lessons from the battleship era are illustrative. Sailors overcame a threat to their technological identity by focusing on how the aircraft could enhance the capabilities of the battleship in the context of Mahanian doctrine. Today, the Navy should similarly focus on how drones could not only enhance the capabilities of manned aviation, but how they can play to the technological identity of the aviator. If aviators do want to “just fly,” could an increase in the ratio of unmanned to manned platforms free up resources and increase flight time for the manned squadrons of the air wing? Could drones relieve manned aviators of their least favorite mission sets? Could they reduce the multitasking of manned squadrons, thereby allowing them to excel at specific missions?

This isn’t to say drones are never presented in this light. “Force-multiplier” has become a stock phrase in reference to unmanned platforms. However, the impact could be much more powerful. Consider the development of the MQ-25 unmanned tanker, for instance. Currently, Navy Super Hornets routinely conduct tanking missions for the rest of the air wing in what’s known as “buddy tanking.” In a 2017 interview, Commander, Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker stated that the MQ-25 would “reduce some of the fatigue life expenditure on our Super Hornets.” Now imagine this same fact presented to Super Hornet pilots as: “the MQ-25 will give you more flight hours and you won’t have to fly tanking missions anymore.” The former is a sterile description of the effect on a machine; the latter reflects an understanding of technology’s effect on human beings. Drones need what Cmdr. Greg Smith calls “an internal officer constituency” who are excited for the development of this capability, just as the battleship sailors supported aircraft once they saw their utility to sea power.


Technological evolution is part and parcel of maintaining a competitive military. Sometimes the developments are incremental, and other times they are radical, involving paradigmatic shifts in thinking. Postwar battleship sailors contemplating their future in the aircraft-carrier Navy may well have asked themselves: “What am I to do?” For them, the answer was simple. Contribute to the Navy’s sea power like they’ve always done and welcome the ways that aviation made them more effective sailors. In looking ahead to the future roles of drones, what are aviators itching for the thrill of flight to do? The answer is also simple: Contribute to the Navy’s air power like they’ve always done and welcome the ways the technology of tomorrow will let them be better pilots than they are today.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously labeled Henry Stimson as secretary of the Navy. He served as secretary of war and secretary of state.


Lt. j.g. Steven Hallgren is currently training to be a naval aviator at Naval Air Station Kingsville. He is a 2015 graduate of the Naval Academy and a 2017 graduate of the University of Oxford.

Image: United Kingdom government