Taking the Man Out of Future Unmanned Military Systems
The Defense Department’s road map seeks a rise in machines as it plans to morph toward more autonomy.
The lead and superiority that the United States holds over the rest of the world in unmanned and autonomous systems is diminishing rapidly as technological and less expensive improvements help level the playing field between the haves and have-nots. Accordingly, the military’s push to protect the lives of troops just might instead place humans at greater risk. The technology behind development of unmanned and autonomous systems makes the platforms more precise, meticulous and exacting than the legacy systems they will replace, but the migration theoretically could make some governments hungrier for war—more apt to wage conflict than vie for diplomatic solutions.
“One of the things we have to face, I think, is that today, the U.S. has a very large lead in unmanned systems,” says Ramez Naam, a computer scientist and lecturer on energy, environment and automomy expert at Singularity University, where he serves as adjunct faculty. “But I don’t think that is likely to persist. I think the playing field will get leveled, and I think nonstate actors and small governments will benefit tremendously from the rapid drop in the price of computing and rapid diffusion of drone technology in the civilian sector.”
So, the U.S. Defense Department’s long-term campaign to take the man out of unmanned systems is inevitable, declares Naam, who spent 13 years at Microsoft working on early versions of Outlook, Internet Explorer and the Bing search engine. “Unmanned systems could be more accurate and could reduce collateral damage,” he offers. “At the same time, they increase our temptation to use weapons and to create conflict or to engage in conflict in places we wouldn’t send American soldiers.
“We are willing to have drone strikes in Yemen, for instance, where we don’t have Americans on the ground. And that’s what worries me more.”
The Defense Department’s road map for the future of military unmanned and autonomous systems, titled “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2013-2038,” makes the distinction between unmanned and autonomous systems and poses some ethical policy questions. “The potential for improving capability and reducing cost through the use of technology to decrease or eliminate specific human activities, otherwise known as automation, presents great promise for a variety of DOD improvements,” reads a portion of the document. “However, it also raises challenging questions when applying automation to specific actions or functions. How will systems that autonomously perform tasks without direct human involvement be designed to ensure that they function within their intended parameters? More broadly, autonomous capabilities give rise to questions about what overarching guiding principles should be used to help discern where more oversight and direct human control should be retained.”
In 2012, the Defense Department issued the first public policy on autonomy in weapons systems, placing a 10-year moratorium on the development of fully autonomous lethal weapon systems, but still allowing development of systems that deliver nonlethal force. The policy also allows the ban to be overridden by high-level department officials.
Already plagued by budget crunches and looming threats of additional depleted resources, the U.S. military is under pressure to trim troops from its rosters and cut back on spending. Defense officials’ need to pare costs that come with training, equipping and fielding a conventional military serves as a driving force behind leaders’ pursuit of robotics and autonomous systems. Modernizing the Pentagon’s fleet of unmanned and autonomous systems could take a sizeable financial chunk out of the biggest department expenditure—personnel. “One of the largest cost drivers in the budget of [the Defense Department] is manpower,” reads the long-term planning blueprint.
The general population already has seen a sampling of the capabilities of unmanned systems from recent conflicts and use in Yemen to target terrorist cells. More than 20 types of coalition unmanned aircraft were used in Iraq and Afghanistan, morphing from their reconnaissance-only role to performing offensive strikes, force protection and intelligence collection battlefield missions, a change that reduced the complexity and time lag in the sensor-to-shooter chain for acting on actionable intelligence, defense officials note.
The leap to autonomy will not be made in a single bound. Along the way, the services are testing new capabilities to facilitate and verify the transition. The U.S. Army, for example, has experimented on developments in the manned-to-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) systems, demonstrating interoperability among unmanned systems through a number of platforms, including the Universal Ground Control Station (UGCS), Mini-UGCS and the One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT). The technology combines video feeds and weapons from manned and unmanned platforms, giving the Army a one-stop shop to providing rapid situational awareness for ground troops and improved efficiency in using appropriate weapons. Army officials made a MUM-T vault in Afghanistan last year with the deployment of the AH-64E Apache Echo attack helicopter, which is equipped with technology that lets the helicopter pilot, from the cockpit, remotely control a Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft. Combining the various systems serves as the catalyst for interoperability among the Army’s manned and unmanned aviation fleet, which officials have said translates to cost savings and increased efficiency through common hardware and software. The UGCS controls the larger unmanned aircraft from a single ground station and successfully tested the universal operator concept, showcasing the ability to fly multiple unmanned aircraft using the same operator.
“A significant amount of ... manpower, when it comes to operations, is spent directing unmanned systems during mission performance, data collection and analysis, and planning and replanning,” reads a portion of the Defense Department’s road map. “Therefore, of utmost importance for DOD is increased system, sensor and analytical automation that can not only capture significant information and events, but can also develop, record, play back, project and parse out those data and then actually deliver ‘actionable’ intelligence instead of just raw information.”
The Defense Department feels a sense of urgency brought on by a “swiftly changing international environment” to develop new capabilities to respond to transforming requirements, the document reads. Specifically, three forces are behind the earnest need to adapt: budgetary challenges, evolving security requirements and a changing military environment.
“As we turn the page on more than a decade of grinding conflict, we must broaden our attention to future threats and challenges,” Chuck Hagel said in February 2013 while serving as defense secretary. “That means continuing to increase our forces on the Asia-Pacific region, reinvigorating historic alliances like NATO and making new investments in critical capabilities like cyber.”
Despite the department’s having championed the pressing need for the unmanned and autonomous systems, budgets in the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) face a total reduction of $487 billion over the next decade. Still, the cost of the unmanned systems portfolio has grown to rival traditional manned systems. With such looming challenges, officials say they are selective about which unmanned and autonomous technology to fund. Overall funding for research and development for unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) is expected to dwindle during the next five years, though officials anticipate investing more in UAS platforms that perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
An industry forecast by the Teal Group, which gathers, classifies and analyzes information on aerospace and the defense industry, suggests that while commercial spending on UAS technology over the upcoming decade will double to $89 billion, the Defense Department will not be leading that spending trend.
“In the commercial sector, I think we have plenty of purchasers,” Naam says. “For air vehicles, which is what we think of today, predominately, with unmanned vehicles, right now recreation is actually a big part of it. But going forward, I think we have a couple of big sectors that are coming. … Using a drone for same-day delivery of something that is expensive but lightweight is very cost-effective.”
Unmanned ground systems (UGS) are slated to see an uptick in Defense Department spending with the fielding of new programs of record to meet expanding mission requirements. In the maritime domain, funding for unmanned maritime systems (UMS) is expected to fall roughly 45 percent across the FYDP, though inventories in unmanned surface vessels and unmanned undersea vehicles continue to rise. That is because the cost of the technology will decrease, Naam explains.
The U.S. Navy has successfully developed a fleet of mechanical guard dogs using commercial software to transform any surface vessel into an autonomous platform. Through the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) sensor and software kit, vessels can “sense” their environments to detect and react to perceived threats from other vessels. The technology can allow them to swarm around a maritime asset to protect it or go on the offensive, all the while operating in sync with other CARACaS-equipped vessels to avoid collisions.
“I think people underestimate how much of the autonomy will be deployed in noncombat, nonlethal ways,” Naam observes. “We always think about the unmanned vehicles being things like the airborne drones that fire missiles. But drone sweepers, where they are removing risks, are a great example of nonlethal ways. I think if we had unmanned land mine sweepers or bomb diffusers—more bomb-sniffing robots and so on—simply removing risks to humans, that’s a fantastic thing.”
But the declining cost of the systems makes them more available—to everyone, he cautions. “That is a leveling of the playing field. That means it won’t just be the U.S. to be able to afford these systems. It will be small nations that can afford these systems, and it will be nonstate actors. Everything from [nongovernmental organizations] that have charitable missions to terrorist groups will be able to afford unmanned vehicles—for armed use, for humanitarian use or for asymmetric warfare use.
“It’s a technology race, and in technology races, the organizations that win are those that are the most nimble,” he contends. “They’re the organizations that allow a lot of experimentation, that allow creativity, that allow people low down in the hierarchy to say yes to ideas on their own autonomy and even make mistakes, rather than having every new decision go all the way to the top, wait for congressional review, wait multiple years to get funding and so on. If the [Defense Department] wants to stay at the cutting edge of new technology, it has to organize itself more like a technology company than like a hierarchal, top-down organization.”