Drone technology won't truly take off until leadership accepts autonomous platforms as a core pillar of future forces and operations.

Drone technology won’t truly take off until leadership accepts autonomous platforms as a core pillar of future forces and operations.

As the human hand moves further from the throttle and tiller, the nervousness of leadership is unavoidable. Although drones are integral to ISR, OTH strike, and explosives disposal, they remain a force multiplier, never the force. It is an important step beyond that trepidation for the Secretary of the Navy to have illustrated in clear terms the inevitability of unmanned and automated drones’ frontline future in his article, “The Future Has Arrived.”

The key concept change is the discussion of drones as a force that “put[s] fewer sailors and marines in harms’ way, and… push[es] the area of potential action even further from the decks of our ships” particularly from carrier bases. This puts drones on the front lines of America’s on-demand forward deployed forces. The subtle tip of the cap to truly automated platforms is the statement that, “unmanned carrier aircraft do not require flights to maintain pilot proficiency.” Even remote pilots need to “fly” remote aircraft to maintain proficiency. However, automated platforms do not. To mince the point, the Secretary is a bit optimistic. Yes, flight requirements will be far lower. However, drones will ultimately still have to be flown to test the limits of programming and for those programs to learn. Otherwise, we use programming that is too rigid for tactical evasion or air-to-air engagement. That said, the general concept is sound, Drones will become our defense-in-depth, fighting at the front rather than the fringe.

Some might claim Secretary Mabus’ optimism is too early; the XB-47 has failed 50% of its attempts at landing. However, the fact it can be done is more important than the technical setbacks in regularity. The Secretary doesn’t declare policy implementation today, but rather its inevitability tomorrow.

“Not only will the future carrier air wing be more combat effective, they will cost less to build, and less expensive airframes mean we can build more and use them differently, like developing swarm tactics and performing maneuvers that require more g-force than a human body can withstand.”

“Will,” not, “may.” Certainty is a change from the tone of possibility and trepidation that has typically colors official discussions of drone technology since Harry Crumpton and the CIA wanted to mount a missile on Predator. From firearms to flight, technical difficulties do not dismiss the next big thing. Hopefully with greater support at the very top, military leadership will get more comfortable with what Secretary Mabus calls, “the winning argument.”

Posted by LT Matthew Hipple in Navy
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  • Matt

    There is no way to forecast the actual implications of this leap in technology anytime soon. Both sides will be tempted to believe they know enough so we can all put our eggs in their basket but this is naïve. The Predator is the first generation akin to biplanes. Who really knows the strengths and weaknesses of platforms not even existing yet? We must retain manned flight perhaps indefinitely while pursuing a full throated race to build the most capable UAV ever and then do it again at regular intervals. The F-35 should not be the end of the line of manned flight. For all we know one virus could knock out or even turn our own UAVs against us. We will be perfecting UAVs for generations. We have time to make the change safely. No air force has ever switched sides with a key stroke. The perils are as dangerous as the benefits are magnificent.

    • Matthew Hipple

      Understand, no one is suggesting we immediately cast aside all our manned platforms. Again, the issue here is that the technology is accepted as inevitable. If you live by the sword, you die by the gun. Area denial, drone proliferation, and ASM technology are going to require larger swarm defenses that are impervious to EW interference. Autonomy is the key, so our drones cannot be interfered with/hijacked via remote signal. As for viruses… this isn’t a Black Ops 2. We’re not linking our drones together in some vast global skynet that can be hijacked. In the end, we will always have manned platforms of some kind. However, this IS the future. Without accepting it, we risk being the French infantry commanders of WWII falling to the blitz; our tanks may be better, but we fail to use them properly.

      • TheMightyQ


        You are correct when you identify the vulnerability of our current drone fleet as the EM data link, which can be rather easily attacked. A logical next step would then be to make them autonomous. However, there are 2nd and 3rd order effects from the use of autonomous systems about which no one has any clue. The increasing use of drones in warfare has national policy implications that have yet to be fleshed out, including addressing the ease with which a war may be begun.

        Additionally, this type of technological leap carries with it the possibility to re-zero the playing field between us and our adversaries, much like the HMS DREADNOUGHT did with battleships prior to WWI. Because it made all previous battleships obsolete, including Great Britain’s, all of a sudden Germany was able to move into near parity by going straight to building all-big gun ships.

        Also, as Milan Vego noted here a few years ago, technology is no panacea. Autonomous systems are at best a tactic to put in our toolbox, not the solution to warfare.

        Finally, I leave you with a quote from RDML Wylie, “The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun. This man is the final power in war. He is in control, he determines who wins. There are those who dispute this as an absolute, but it is my belief that while other means may critically influence war today, after whatever devastation and destruction may be visited upon the enemy, if the strategist is forced to strive for final and ultimate control, he must establish, or present
        as an inevitable prospect, a man on the scene with a gun.”

        – Q

        P.S. The reason the French got crushed so quickly in WWII is that they failed to understand maneuver warfare at the operational level, not because they lacked any technological superiority, which really just influences tactics. The analogy doesn’t really translate.

      • Matthew Hipple

        I apologize for my lack of clarity, but I was actually trying to make a point along those very lines. The success of the blitz was due to superior employment of not-as-high technology. I was comparing our skittishness at employing drones in such a manner to the French insistance on tanks as mere infantry support, rather than the main thrust of the force. Like the words of RDML Wylie, it’s that man’s ability to adapt to his tools faster than his enemy does that allows him to win. Certainly, technology is no panacea and drones are not a “solution” to war. However, drones will be a “part” of war, as are rifles and aircraft now. From swarm attacks to clouds of countermeasure drones, it will change the way we war and it will be an environment (I believe) that will be increasingly unfriendly to remote platforms and in many places too fast/widespread for the limited number/processing power/and g-constraints of human pilots. Does that allay some of the technophile-centric thinking I may have projected in error?

      • TheMightyQ

        “…Drones will be a ‘part’ of war, as are rifles and aircraft now.” Agree completely. However, I would disagree that these types of platforms will “change the way we [conduct] war.” The big changes in the way war has been conducted in the past hundred years or so have come when technological advances have allowed forces to make use of a new medium for fighting (e.g. air warfare, undersea warfare, computer warfare). In this case, the only thing that would change is the tactics within the medium.

        Now, you are certainly correct when you write that emerging wartime environments will become increasingly hostile to remote platforms. No one has a monopoly on the EM spectrum, and its exploitation (or denial) can likely be achieved by either side, eventually settling in a stalemate in that environment. However, I don’t foresee an scenario in the next 10-15 years that will allow for “clouds of countermeasure drones” to operate autonomously. The F-35 has something on the order of 10 million lines of code onboard, and that is a MANNED aircraft. And we can’t even get that right. We’re looking at an IOC for the carrier variant of something like 2019. Autonomous drones would likely have code that is an order of magnitude more than an F-35, at least. Now, that isn’t to write that we shouldn’t pursue this kind of technology, but let’s put it into perspective. People used to say in the 1960′s that missiles would essentially make the maneuvering capabilities of fighters obsolete, because missiles could pull more G’s than a plane, and fighters could send “swarms” of them at the enemy. Well, we saw how well that worked in Vietnam. (Hint: not very)

        Separately, there is a limit on the amount of resources that we have. I would rather we do the basics right than spend disproportionate amounts of time, energy, and resources down the rabbit hole of “the future.” For instance, we should ensure that the personnel and maintenance requirements for the surface fleet are fully funded before we spend dollar 1 on any autonomous platform.

        And this is all completely separate from another related discussion that must be covered before autonomous vehicles of any sort are used, and that is the moral/ethical discussion. For instance, how does their use fit in with the Geneva Conventions? Will our allies’ populations support their use as well?

        You bring up many good points, Matt. I think your forward thinking is great for the Navy. I’m just trying to provide some perspective.

        – Q

      • Matthew Hipple

        Absolutely! As Dennis Prager says, I prefer clarity to agreement.

        And I suppose, by changing the way we conduct, I mean how we shifted from guns to aircraft, from aircraft to missiles (in some cases), and with (for example) a firescout carrying a live countermeasure to act as a helo-lure Falklands War style… we potentially go back to visual-range warfare (if the missiles and gun FCS is so loaded-down with false contacts). It’s a long-shot, but an interesting thought.

        But this is all goof food for thought, and possibly some of it already beaten into my skull by my CO who is even more skeptical :)

  • http://www.sjponeill.wordpress.com/ SJPONeill

    Well…if you really want unmanned aircraft warfare to truly take off, you might want to start by getting your terminology right and stop referring to them as drones which is both incorrect and emotive…


      Drone: 3. A pilotless aircraft operated by remote control. Copy/paste from the American Heritage Dictionary.
      Why is the dictionary definition wrong?

  • BryanClark

    One note: the X-47 is autonomous to a great degree. It would be too hard to remotely take off or land the UCAV on a CVN, so it does these functions and most of its other flying autonomously, based on mission orders from the operator. The X-47 takes advantage, for example, of the systems that already enable carrier aviators to do auto landings and takeoffs.

    Compared to USAF RPVs, X-47 is more like a manned aircraft in how we operate it. The loss of a data link to the operator, therefore, is not a “mission kill” necessarily, but EM operations would affect the X-47 similarly to how they affect manned aircraft – sensors and comms would be impacted, potentially degrading effectiveness. The importance of effective EM operations was discussed at length by CNO in two articles in Proceedings last year.

  • RightCowLeftCoast

    Perhaps, it maybe possible that the UAV in the maritime setting of warfare is the early 21st century’s equivelant of the early 20th century’s torpedo boats, in theory a very powerful asset when used in significant numbers, that could send a larger amount of ordanance at the enemy, at a lower cost of manpower and funds than a larger more individually powerful platform.
    As was stated in the podcast a couple weeks ago, it was thought that the new platform may alter the battlefield significantly, but in the end it just because one additional tool in the toolbox of the admiralty, with its own sets of strengths and weaknesses.

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