Cultural Experimentation for the Coming Drone Fleet

By James Hasik

How we do business under arms begins with our military culture. The mores of the organization define the swim lanes of bureaucrats, the avenues of correctness for would-be reformers, and the decisions we permit ourselves when fighting on the field, in the air, and at sea. While ostensibly limiting, culture is necessary for reducing the range of choices—possibly bewildering in wartime—to one that is manageable in finite time.1 By prescribing a path, it does not so much constrain as liberate, making decision-under-fire feasible. Simply put, effective military organizations need sound organizational culture.

As anyone who has served in a navy knows, this is far larger than the sum of the NAVADMINs and International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. Naval culture communicates values and norms through visible, personalized symbols of service: the proverbial silk scarves of our flyers or the salt-sprayed hair of our sailors. When new technologies alter traditions by rendering old arrangements and symbols obsolete, flyers and sailors alike can question their professional identities. But they have no choice. For military services, cultural adaptation is a constant necessity, because ignoring the need for new institutions can be literally fatal.

Change Is Under Way

Airplanes without aviators are already common, and air arms are struggling with how to treat professionally a pilot without a cockpit. Next will be the fleets, standing on the verge of ships without crews. We know this change will be manageable, for navies have dealt with greater challenges before. Embarking drones on already mature carriers will not be as difficult as was learning to put aircraft on ships in the first place. Back in the 1920s, flyers were summoned to their aircraft by buglers sounding “Boots and Saddles.” In terms of tradition, that was a chasm away from the practices of Top Gun characters Goose and Maverick. The first naval aviators had yet to grasp the emerging significance of what they were about to do. They were not actually cavalry officers, but they had not yet forged their own new branch culture in a way that was appropriate to the new technology.

Today drones do the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous. They reconnoiter, surveil, and gather intelligence. They disable mines, patrol harbors, and protect ships at anchor. In some cases they have been doing this for decades, but with only our gradually growing recognition. Drones provided important tactical advantages in the Vietnam War and the Beka’a Valley campaign, but their operational possibilities were not substantially realized until the Bosnian intervention of the mid-1990s. Students are flocking to college programs to learn to operate them, but the market for their skills is still uncertain.2 In short, navies have not adapted culturally because change is still under way.

Autonomy is even embedded in ways we forget, sometimes doing what humans simply cannot. An often-forgotten example is the flight-control software on every aerodynamically unstable fighter jet since the Falcon and Hornet. Those who flew the Phantom could scoff at the new fly-by-wire machines, but they were far more lethal in the air than the old lead sled with its manual controls. But when graduating to the new ride, the pilots were still pilots. Emerging autonomous systems will challenge this continuity in identity. Already, if they so choose, navies can automate most of their routine engineering and navigation functions at sea, and more applications will come. If an attack drone can be flown from Nevada, then the pilot of a single-seat fighter can possibly benefit from a navigator in a cubicle, a Siri in the control panel, or a figurative R2 unit in the backseat. NASA has done as much with manned space flight for decades, and the worst was a few astronauts turning off the radio for a while.

Humans Remain Central

Fiction, that is, both utopian and dystopian, has been showing us the future for some time. The Jetsons had Rosie, and a Roomba less obtrusively vacuums my floor. But killer robots? We’ve all seen Arnold Schwarzenegger show us what could go wrong. But for years navies have been letting the software shoot, if under controlled circumstances, at rapidly closing perceived threats. Bombs have long guided autonomously, once the pilot approved the targeting computer’s request for release. Automated systems already make observations, orient weapons, and act in extremis. But the decision to kill is a political matter, and thus merits a human thought behind it. Decision is the whole point of the decision cycle. It chooses the action. It provides meaning to the investment in observation and orientation. And when violence is the result, it must be managed by people, who must live with the consequences of those actions.

The centrality of humans in the decision cycle is thus paramount, but as with all new technologies, the new institutional structures within which humans will make those decisions are less clear. From the recent experience of aviators controlling unmanned craft, we know that navies have choices in two realms.

Making Choices

The first choice is a question of organization, which is substantially a matter of location and integration. Should those who operate drones—whether flying or floating—serve in separate units, or be fully embedded in the traditional forces? Very practically, where do they mess? Where will their decisions be taken? Will the sailors serve shipboard, at a forward location ashore, or stateside? Some of the answer is governed by technical and economic factors: the security and latency of data links, the global distribution of spare parts, the availability of trained crews, and a host of other very measurable considerations. The effect on service culture, however, cannot be treated as a residual in the systems analyst’s spreadsheet. It requires conscious decisions about organizational design.

The tradeoffs are already stark in the different approaches used by the U.S. Army and Air Force in their respective Predator-type (Gray Eagle, Reaper) flying units. In the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army has been rotating flight crews to war zones along with their planes, and placing the drone companies within locally serving helicopter battalions. The Air Force has kept its planes in-country, but the flight crews back in Nevada.3 The choice governs how those who mind robots meld with those who work otherwise, and it influences the decisions they will make in combat. Future Army drone pilots cap their training with a five-day field exercise as ground troops, so that they will have at least some experience in common with those they support.4 The Air Force could do the same, but their pilots will probably never eat in the same mess as the grunts, and largely not share their stories. Unlike Marine aviators, even those flying the same aircraft, they will be at some risk for lacking the perspective of the ground trooper. On the other hand, the fore-and-aft pooling of the Air Force’s people and drones is considerably less costly, which may make budgetary room for more people, more drones, and more decisions to make.

Finding the right balance in organizational integration is very important. Too little organizational integration was seen in British carrier aviation in the 1920s. They got the location right, with RAF airplanes on board Royal Navy ships, but planning suffered, as cultures and priorities clashed without useful inter-service rivalry. Too much organizational integration afflicted concurrent British development of armored formations. The Experimental Mechanized Force was never institutionalized. After its disbandment, the tank troops of the infantry acted like infantry, and the tank troops of the cavalry acted like cavalry, without ever learning to act like tanks. In neither case did British fighting men develop quite the right way of doing things, new and apart from the old structures. As an Israeli Defense Force saying goes, they could never quite decide how to organize the mess.

The second choice is a question of sophistication. What sort of sailors control, or just manage, the navigation, the interrogation of contacts, and the decision to fire? How much authority do the system designers choose to relegate to the sailor and to the drone? How much skill and education are expected of the humans and the robots? And on that human side, what sorts of people decide what? Again, this question is rooted in matters of technology and cost, fields within which military bureaucrats often seem at their most comfortable. But the division of labor between man and machine also entails conscious choices in human factors such as engineering and specific investments in human capital. Ultimately, as Lenin would say, we must ask kto kogo?—who does what to whom?

Let us make this practical. Whether embarked on another vessel or operating independently from ashore, each drone is a boat itself, and puts demands on its crew’s seamanship. Here again, the Predators of the Army and Air Force provide excellent examples. Each service’s aircraft put varying demands on the airmanship of their pilots—or controllers, in the Army’s parlance—even if they are not in a cockpit. They all seem to perform well, but they are very different sorts of crews. Army controllers are enlisted soldiers who proceed from high school to flight school. They study the FAA ground-school course for private pilots as their introductory curriculum.5 Most have never flown manned aircraft. Air Force pilots, on the other hand, are college-educated officers. Until recently, all were required to have qualified in the air before sitting in the controller’s chair.6 The sensor operators alongside are enlisted airmen; they have technical sophistication, as they are reportedly excellent at their task. At no point are they expected to be managers of the violence or conversant in Clausewitz and the nuances of the laws of war. For that, there is always some presumed leadership alongside.

It is not obvious which approach is superior, and under what circumstances. Most Army controllers have never fired a shot in anger, but they draw great praise from their comrades in the sand. The Air Force’s drone campaign against the Taliban and others has clearly been long and lethal, but not uncontroversial for its collateral damage. Some rated pilots insist that only those who have sat in the cockpit should be allowed to handle a drone. Others counter that the manned and unmanned flying experiences are so different that one helps only slightly with the other.7 The successes and failings of these two approaches to very similar problems are not yet clear. 

Change Brings Experimentation

With these tradeoffs of structure and human capital in mind, we can ask how unmanned systems will shape naval culture in the year to come. The better question, however, is what naval culture should we shape to best support our unmanned future. What values and norms should navies instill in the sailors they recruit for the future drone force? How, that is, will they man the unmanned?

This is no idle, speculative choice. Ten years hence, whatever our choices, not choosing would have been the greatest mistake. Failing to forge a culture for the unmanned fleet would place us with the British of the interwar years: neither here nor there, but clearly unprepared for the coming war, whatever it may be. There is some reason to worry. For all their publicity, the monies spent on drones are a small fraction of those spent on not-yet-operational Joint Strike Fighters. Today the Air Force is clearly pulling back from its wartime shotgun marriage with Predators.8 Europeans as a whole continue to underinvest, or at best to follow their American allies in tinkering with new concepts.9 To paraphrase Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute, debating drones today is like buying songs on iTunes: it simply doesn’t attract the attention of new cars—or nuclear submarines.10 And money matters first, for admiralties tend to believe they are what they buy.

So what to do? In a word, experiment. Nearly a century ago, operational initiatives produced the doctrines for carrier aviation and amphibious warfare that eventually won the war in the Pacific. They built common ways of doing things (military cultures) for those new arms of the naval profession. Today, between the new carrier-based jets, the mine-hunting submersibles, and the handful of drone boats, the Navy is accumulating enough assets for more than operational testing and evaluation. It is assembling a small drone force for doctrinal, tactical, and organizational development. It is assembling a force that, as a result of this work, will forge its own culture.

And yet, as I have argued, that culture must mesh with broader, existing naval ethos, in a way not too separate and not too embedded. Already today, there is no organizational reason “why a unit of unmanned patrol boats cannot be controlled by Navy Reserve crews at a base in Arizona or Texas or North Dakota, right alongside National Guardsmen controlling Predators or Reapers.”11 Within a declining budget, stateside control will have the allure of economy, but it may too sharply break the connection with the Fleet. So if they do serve on the prairies, then in the right weather those sailors had better be wearing summer whites. This may seem a trivial point, but at zero altitude and zero airspeed, Air Force drone pilots wear flight suits. There is absolutely no practical reason for this; they might as well wear sport coats. Blazers, the Royal Navy termed them, but by donning outfits suitable for their cubicles, the pilots would lose legitimacy with their manned-aircraft brethren. They would lack the trappings of their shared office. The sailors ashore could similarly lose theirs. Their outward routines must signal an appreciation of the sea.

There is a similar professional question. Engine mechanics are engine mechanics, whether for Reapers or Super Hornets. Admirals and generals are strategists and politicians, rather above the technical mastery of any single technology. In between serve the aircraft pilots and boat masters: the frontline middle managers of violence. It is here, amid the middle ranks, that operational innovation thrives and culture is transmitted to the next generation. It is here, though, that surface navies may have their greatest challenges in adapting to unmanned technologies.

Automation is spreading because it overcomes the limits of physics and physiology found with physical manning. Removing the human from the cockpit or the helm sends the craft further and drastically reduces its size. In turn, the cost of fielding whole flotillas to canvass the oceans drops greatly. This means many more drones, but without a crew, who is the captain? For that matter, who is the commodore? The remote boatswains of the future cannot be four-stripe officers; there is simply too much work to be done. Whether they are best lieutenants, warrants, or chiefs is yet to be learned. But navies can identify the best mixing of manning—in location, integration, education, and cultural expectations—by trying a host of combinations. That is, by experimenting as they did in the interwar years. But whatever the choice, with that demand for talent will come a demand for initiative in the middle ranks not often expected of big-Navy sailors. If authority to control flotillas of drones necessarily devolves, navies will need sailors with a sense of the Auftragstaktik of Marines. As always, it will be the decision that matters.

1. Peter H. Wilson, “Defining Military Culture,” Journal of Military History 72, no. 1 (January 2008), 14.

2. Isolde Raftery, “Anticipating Domestic Boom, Colleges Rev Up Drone Piloting Programs,” NBC News, 29 January 2013.

3. James Hasik and Stanton Coerr, “How Should Unmanned Aircraft Be Manned?” Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) 2013.

4. Comments by Specialist Steven Rayleigh, U.S. Army, on the Shadow UAV, meeting of the AUVSI Lone Star chapter, University of Texas at Austin, 31 August 2009. See also

5. Rayleigh comments on the Shadow UAV, 31 August 2009.

6. Hasik and Coerr, “How Should Unmanned Aircraft Be Manned?”

7. Rayleigh comments on the Shadow UAV, 31 August 2009.

8. Aaron Mehta, “USAF Leader: QDR Process Helps DOD See Vulnerabilities,” Defense News, 19 October 2013; Audrey Kurth Cronin, “Drones over Damascus: What Their Absence from the Syria Debate Means about Their Usefulness,” Foreign Affairs, 2 September 2013.

9. David Pearson, “European Defense Firms’ Drone Push Remains Elusive,” Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2013. 

10. Benjamin H. Friedman, “Lessons from Iraq We Haven’t All Heard Before,” US News and World Report Online, 21 March 2013.

11. Russell Belden, James Hasik, and James Soon, “Robots in the Age of Pirates,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 2011.


Mr. Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, and a William Powers Doctoral Fellow at the University of Texas.


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