Just as the U.S. Navy initially resisted the transition from sail to steam-powered ships and elements of the Army dismissed air power and fought against the shift from horses to tanks, some parts of the military continue to resist the expansion of uninhabited systems into traditional combat roles. As a result, the U.S. Defense Department is failing to invest in game-changing technology that could increase efficiencies and save lives, according to a just-released report from the Center for a New American Security. Strong department leadership will be required to overcome these obstacles and ensure that the department is investing today in these vital capabilities to counter future threats.
The report outlines a grim environment for the Defense Department. “Several trends in the global security environment are eroding conventional U.S. military advantages,” it states. Long-range, precision anti-access and area denial weapons threaten traditional U.S. modes of power projection and target America’s Achilles’ heel in space. Long-range missiles are pushing U.S. power projection assets farther away. Non-state actors have increasing access to guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles that can target U.S. ports, bases and formations with high precision and lethality. Readily available commercial information technologies place sensors and ad hoc command and control networks empower non-state groups and individuals. And commercial off-the-shelf technologies, such as cyberweapons, 3-D printers, communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) jammers and fully autonomous drones give non-state actors and even lone wolf terrorists access to potentially powerful disruptive weapons.
The report offers several recommendations for each of the military services and the Defense Department. The Air Force, for example, should develop technology that allows a single operator to simultaneously control multiple unmanned aircraft; develop a fleet of high-altitude long-endurance aircraft vehicles to act as a resilient airborne layer for communications and navigation in the event of a widespread disruption to satellites; and begin development of low-cost unmanned aircraft for high-risk missions, such as suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses.
The Navy, meanwhile, should invest in a stealthy deep-strike attack version of its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system and begin developing small surface vessels to intercept swarming small boats that threaten Navy surface ships. The report recommends the Army implement a hybrid remote operations concept for its MQ-1C Gray Eagle aircraft so operators can fly remotely while stateside between deployments, adding operational capacity at low cost. The Army also should rescind its policy prohibiting uninhabited vehicles for casualty evacuation and develop systems for that purpose. And the Marine Corps should develop a medium-altitude long-endurance system to fly from amphibious assault ships, providing Marines with loitering surveillance and close-air support.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense should establish a senior innovation group, led by the deputy secretary of defense, to ensure the department invests in key game-changing capabilities, even when such technologies threaten existing cultures and bureaucracies, the report adds.