The Unmanned Revolution

By Tom Spahn

In the coming decade, the maturation and proliferation of unmanned systems on, under, and above the world’s oceans will have repercussions that extend far beyond the technological evolution of the science of naval warfare. Ultimately these systems will cause a fundamental revolution of the art. Careful understanding of why unmanned systems will have a unique and particularly profound impact on three key areas of naval warfare will ensure continued dominance of the maritime environment in the face of the coming radical change.

First, unmanned maritime systems (UMS) will fundamentally change both force-multiplying in war and force-planning in peace. Though not unique in providing benefits in these areas, unmanned systems are poised to shift the balance between cost and capabilities to a far greater extent than any other technological advance in modern history. This will allow unprecedented flexibility on and off the battlefield, by freeing vast quantities of resources and transforming cumbersome design to the implementation of lean, iterative feedback cycles.

Next, capitalizing on the emerging opportunities presented by this increased flexibility will require an organizational environment that fosters creativity and innovation. UMS are a disruptive technology, a rare innovation that suddenly and profoundly changes the competitive landscape of an industry—or, in warfare, a battlespace. Those who cannot adapt to the rapid change risk obsolescence. Innovators who keep pace can reap great rewards.

Finally, difficult moral and ethical dilemmas will threaten the fragile public trust and willingness to relinquish more of the observe-orient-decide-act-assess cycle to increasingly autonomous machines. With public consensus, the answer to any particular question holds less importance than ensuring that clear, transparent processes are in place before they arise.

Some may dismiss as hyperbole the assertion that adoption of UMS represents a change in naval warfare as fundamental as the shift from sail to steam power. In reality, this analogy understates the pending revolution.

Resource Multipliers

The art of naval warfare is rapidly approaching an exciting tipping point. Unmanned autonomous technologies are poised to radically alter the calculus that guides civilian and military leaders who weigh the cost of new weapons against their promised capabilities when considering future maritime national-security risks.

To appreciate the magnitude of the coming change, consider that in war, distilled to binary simplicity, the adversary who can bring the greatest combat power to bear will achieve victory on the battlefield. Innovative tacticians are able to amplify the combined combat strength of the force at their disposal by creating and exploiting synergies between assets, thus generating combat power in excess of what the constituent pieces could muster alone. The manner in which this effect has been achieved has changed throughout history, with the key driver steadily shifting over time from tactics to technology. Because of the long lead time required for technological development, with this shift in emphasis, highly predictive force-planning decisions made far in advance of any conflict gain importance in achieving force-multiplying synergies.       

In the distant past, tactics used directly on the field of battle served as the key force-multiplier. Thus, commanders could achieve this effect by immediately matching capability to threat with little advance planning. No confrontation from antiquity provides a better example of this than the legendary Battle at Thermopylae, where, despite a force drastically outmatched in terms of raw combat strength, Leonidas and his Spartans held against Xerxes’ advancing Persian hordes by understanding the region’s key terrain features and leveraging this intelligence to multiply the effectiveness of his tiny contingent a hundredfold. From Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix in the siege of Alesia to Napoleon’s tactical brilliance against the Third Coalition in the hills of Austerlitz, history is replete with similarly compelling examples of commanders who achieved improbable victory against superior raw combat power through decisions made in, or shortly before, battle.

In modern times, though tactics remain a central pillar of warfare, technology acts as the key tool for commanders to amplify a force’s combat power. This is exemplified by the events of the first Gulf War, culminating in the United States’ virtual annihilation of the Iraqi military, the world’s fourth largest at the time, in a matter of hours. The most important decisions leading to this stunning victory had come years earlier in the pursuit of cruise missiles, stealth aircraft, and other advanced weapons technologies.

Technology Is High-Maintenance

It has become equally clear, however, that as technology has exponentially expanded the force-multiplying capabilities of modern weapon systems, developing these has become increasingly resource-intensive, requiring more difficult tradeoffs in national priorities. In the current era of austerity and oft-threatened economic cataclysm, the fight for scarce funds has emerged as one of the most dire threats to a modern military, capable of defeating even the most advanced weapon systems before they can even reach the battlefield. As Air Force General Curtis LeMay presciently quipped to an aide during heated budget negotiations: “The Soviets are our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy.”

Additionally, as weapon systems’ capabilities have improved, so too has their complexity. Accurately assessing future risks against the total lifecycle cost to field new assets has become nearly impossible, while the consequences for misjudging this calculation have mounted. A successful new asset can eliminate many vulnerabilities, thereby contributing more to the national defense than the sum of its parts, but the failure of such a system, by either capabilities that fall short of expectations or lifecycle costs deemed too high, can likewise multiply the damage through the waste of resources and time over the course of a lengthy development cycle. The cancellation of the Seawolf-class submarine program after the production of only three units illustrates the difficulty in achieving the appropriate cost-capability balance. Though without question this platform far outclassed any rival, decision-makers weighing capabilities against requirements and costs ultimately could not justify its enormous price tag. Instead the Virginia class followed, slightly less capable but significantly less expensive. To this day planners struggle to achieve this balance, as demonstrated by the Zumwalt-class destroyer program, which, with only three vessels funded to date, appears destined to share the same fate as the Seawolf.

UMS fundamentally alter the premise that costs increase with technology. For illustration of why these assets will have such a special, profound impact, compare the difference between removing a pilot from an aircraft to eliminating the crew from a submarine.

Other than relatively minor space and ergonomic considerations, aircraft designs require few concessions to accommodate a human at the controls. Thus, manned and unmanned aviation assets are generally very similar. Though the evolutionary technology provides significant benefits, such as improved endurance and increased operating thresholds, beyond the battlefield the change has relatively little impact from a total-force lifecycle planning perspective.

On the other hand, even the most modern fast-attack submarines carry an extensive list of systems and spaces that are, and always will be, necessary to support their crews, despite generations of engineers distilling the design to only the bare essentials. Along with the numerous components that the systems themselves comprise, each must include an ergonomically feasible user interface—which adds scores of valves, buttons, nobs, and every imaginable type of display scattered throughout the boat. All are prone to failure unless meticulously maintained, further adding to lifecycle cost.

Additionally, ostensibly wasted space, including, for example, passageways, berthing compartments, mess decks, and storage for sufficient food, adds to the required volume inside the pressure hull. In turn, this adds to the energy required for acceptable performance. Tellingly, a modern submarine could theoretically operate continuously at sea, submerged, for her entire 40-year projected service life if not for the limitation of the crew’s endurance.

Rapid Design Cycles Can Save Money

Amplifying the savings in raw resources, smaller, simpler unmanned systems greatly reduce the time from concept to deployment of new capabilities. Instead of a process of lengthy design, development, employment, evaluation, and redesign, the ability for agile adaptation to changing circumstances and rapid incorporation of iterative design feedback from use of assets in the field will allow for force-planning decisions closer to the time of identifying an emerging threat or vulnerability. Therefore, a solution that is more tailored directly to the problem can be reached.

Again, this has a particularly significant effect on maritime applications. While political and bureaucratic realities often delay or confound the procurement cycle, the Navy’s sister services already benefit from relatively rapid design cycles. For example, when the Army focused its full effort on replacing most of the Humvees deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service managed to field several varieties of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, equipped with a wide range of capabilities, sourced from multiple, redundant vendors in a remarkably short period of time.

On the other hand, by their nature, new core naval assets endure particularly long development and construction and testing cycles. Therefore, accurately predicting requirements far in the future proves particularly daunting. Even the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), heralded as a low-cost, easily constructed surface combatant able to quickly meet emerging threats near coastal waters, has endured more than a decade of development but still has not achieved full mission capability.

Today, force-planning decisions require spreading resources widely in response to difficult predictions of possible threats far in the future. The error introduced by this extended time horizon mandates a force capable of answering a wide range of possibilities, even contingencies that ultimately never come to pass, at the expense of diluting the combat power focused on threats that do. But soon warships such as the LCS will no longer merely support interchangeable mission modules; instead, they will essentially serve as the module itself. By eliminating the need for systems to support a crew, every component and aspect of the vessel’s design will contribute to accomplishing its assigned mission, drastically reducing size and complexity and significantly shortening the design-and-construction process. Future naval warriors will have rapidly interchangeable assets at their disposal, fielded in quick response to emerging threats, with flexibility to rapidly change course by modifying and refining solutions to meet changing conditions. Unleashing the full powerful potential of these assets, however, will require a focused effort to craft a force dedicated to constant innovation at all levels, thus fundamentally changing the art.

A Force for Innovation

The impending technological revolution is inevitable, but U.S. dominance afterward is not. To capitalize on the nearly limitless opportunities ushered in by UMS, naval leaders must ply their art to foster an organizational environment that nurtures innovation and kindles a spirit of entrepreneurship at all levels.

Cultivating nimble processes conducive to innovation within large bureaucracies, particularly in the public sector, can prove extremely difficult, if not impossible. Even companies that revolutionized industries can crumble under their own weight if they succumb to the temptation of becoming too rigid in an attempt to hold onto past success. The Eastman Kodak Company, a U.S. icon for more than a century, thrived as a pioneer on the leading edge of imaging technology, ultimately employing 145,000 workers, most highly skilled engineers and scientists, and achieving a market share of 90 percent of film sales and 85 percent of camera sales by 1976. However, failing to respond to the digital revolution left the giant vulnerable to smaller, more agile companies such as Fujifilm, ultimately leading to Kodak’s filing for bankruptcy in 2012.

Highlighting the danger of inertia, Kodak had actually developed its own digital camera in 1975, before any competitor, but failed to capitalize on the opportunity for fear of cannibalizing sales from its existing product lines. Additionally, unless applied by some externality such as a disgruntled electorate, public-sector organizations lack the fuel driving the engine of capitalism—the crucible of competitive market pressures that reward innovators and punish laggards, thereby churning efficiency from the endless process of creative destruction.

Ultimately, to overcome these challenges and create an environment ripe for innovation, an organization must tread a narrow path between order and chaos. For example, in a jazz ensemble, musicians flit through riffs and chords without obvious rhyme or reason, in improvisation characteristic of these performances that may seem chaotic and random. However, looking deeper, to form a coherent melody an extremely rigid structure underpins the music. Though musicians must adhere to the underlying beat and choose notes within a given harmonic scale, within this loose framework, they are free to explore and innovate, creating unique and often unexpected melodies. If the rules become too restrictive, for example by limiting permissible notes or chords, the tune becomes boring and stale. On the other hand, if the structure becomes too chaotic, the music unravels and devolves into off-key noise.

By outward appearance, the military shares little if anything with such a loose organizational structure. But such principles already govern how a force operates in the field. Following a philosophy of decentralized command, orders express a commander’s intent but rely on the creativity and ingenuity of subordinates to execute most effectively. For example, rules of engagement, which govern the permissible use of force during a conflict, are always structured as limitations rather than permissions. In other words, these orders give subordinate commanders wide latitude to accomplish their mission by implicitly allowing all actions within certain prescribed limits rather than forbidding all actions except for a set of given permission. Our current force, then, has already demonstrated the ability to adapt and innovate operationally. By providing the appropriate opportunities and incentives, this same level of creativity can flourish in other areas of naval warfare.

Lessons from Silicon Valley

Two examples that highlight Silicon Valley’s startup culture illustrate possible ways to accomplish this. First, California courts refuse to enforce almost all “non-compete” provisions in employment contracts. Eliminating these restrictions increases career mobility, encouraging knowledge and skills to flow freely (some argue too freely) between companies and across industries, mixing and accumulating until the right combination, often unpredictably, spawns innovative ideas. Second, in the private sector there are clear incentives for entrepreneurs to seek out and combine complementary expertise to solve problems with innovative solutions.

With subtle changes, the naval art could adopt similar principles. More opportunities for personnel from various specialties to cross-train on platforms would dramatically increase the flow of ideas throughout the service. Submariners train to hunt their surface counterparts, but rarely do they serve on a surface combatant while being hunted, and vice versa. To add incentives to further encourage ideas spawned from these interactions, senior naval commanders could function in a role similar to that of venture capitalists by creating a service-wide process for teams to present ideas, in much the same way as startup companies present business plans when seeking funding. Personnel who presented particularly promising innovations could serve on temporary duty as project managers to further develop their concepts. These assignments should not cause significant disruption, as demonstrated by naval personnel pulled from units in recent years to serve as individual augmentees to fill Army billets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regardless of the method, in order to fully unleash the potential of flexibility and rapid design cycles brought to the maritime environment, innovation must become a key tenet in the art of naval warfare. Meanwhile, facing and answering the difficult moral and ethical dilemmas that accompany the rise of unmanned systems will provide the framework—similarly to the jazz ensemble’s beat.

Process Outweighs Answers

For all their potential to revolutionize naval warfare, looking back ten years hence, future leaders will reflect on the decade and recognize that UMS was traversing dangerous waters. The fate of nuclear power, once widely heralded even by the staunchest environmentalists as a revolutionary energy source, demonstrates the cost of failure. With a reputation already tarnished by association with atomic weapons, nuclear energy suffered a major setback with the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Despite minimal impact on public health, the incident had a devastating effect on the public’s confidence, mostly attributable to misleading and contradictory statements issued at the time and the lackadaisical procedural compliance uncovered later.

The subsequent 1986 meltdown of Chernobyl reactor 4 and, again, a lack of transparency following the event, dealt another severe blow. Nevertheless, the nuclear industry seemed poised for resurgence as a viable, carbon-free, alternative fuel. Then the 2011 Fukushima disaster and inept and deceitful response doomed the supposedly imminent “nuclear renaissance.” Once again, the reactor’s operators tried to avoid liability with misinformation and denial, finally admitting to a continuing leak of radioactive contamination into the Pacific more than two years later.

Though any outcry against autonomous systems will likely never reach that mustered against nuclear power, recent events have shown that these systems are vulnerable to similar setbacks from negative public sentiment. The lack of transparency regarding autonomous aircraft operations, particularly those conducted domestically, imbued all drone activities with a sense of menace. The ubiquitous term “drone strikes” generated such a sense of dread at potential misuse that Senator Rand Paul saw fit to invest significant political capital in a 13-hour filibuster on the topic. While some fellow politicians derided the action, Gallup polls at the time appear to indicate that the public shares this unease. Moreover, recent outrage at certain NSA surveillance activities have further harmed trust in the government’s future use of autonomous systems, particularly as they assume that more of the observe-orient-decide-act-assess cycle will not infringe on personal liberties.

Ultimately, all decisions to use force present the same moral and ethical dilemmas. Whether the action is taken by human or machine, the result is what matters. As with every technological revolution, questions and doubts will inevitably arise over the use of unmanned systems. More important than any answer is ensuring the existence of an open and transparent process to allow public participation and consensus on the decision.

With dedication, adapting the art of naval warfare to embrace the revolution ahead can unlock potential limited only by imagination. However, this future depends on winning the public trust by ensuring transparency in the difficult decisions regarding when, why, and how these systems may be used in peace and war.


Lieutenant Commander Spahn, who holds J.D. and M.S. degrees from Stanford’s Law School and School of Engineering, is a corporate attorney. He served for three years on the USS Chicago (SSN-721) following nuclear-power school, then as a staff officer for the U.S. Third Fleet, including a deployment to Afghanistan.


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