Unmanned systems have become such a ubiquitous part of the U.S. military arsenal that they barely elicit much notice among the broader population anymore. Indeed, if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has his way, it will become a common occurrence to have drones delivering purchases to your front door. Whether it’s something as laudable as keeping humans out of harm’s way in combat or merely trivial like getting consumers their goods even faster, these systems are sending the technological revolution into overdrive before our very eyes.
But is there a downside to this rapid progress? As unmanned systems become more sophisticated, is it possible that they might one day no longer require a human operator in control? This scenario is usually the stuff of science fiction and has served as a popular plot device in many films through the years, whether it was the spacecraft computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the supercomputer WOPR in WarGames that learns as it runs simulations and nearly starts World War III, or the Skynet defense system that gains self-awareness and destroys most of humanity in Terminator and its many sequels.
While current technology is not at that stage yet, the U.S. military’s unmanned systems will have increasing autonomy in the years ahead. One of the main reasons for that, according to retired Navy Captain George Galdorisi, is the high cost of manpower associated with operating them and analyzing the immense amount of data they collect. Greater autonomy would reduce manning and total ownership costs, but how much is appropriate? And what role would humans play in the decision-making loop? “Designing the right degree of autonomy into our unmanned systems is the central issue that will determine their success or failure,” he tells us.
Autonomous unmanned weapon systems might be the answer for the anti-access/area-denial threats the U.S. military faces in many regions of the world, notably the Western Pacific, says defense journalist Dave Majumdar. An unmanned aircraft flying in such an environment would need to “operate independently of prolonged communications with its human masters, and it would also need to be able to make the decision to release weapons without phoning home for a human operator’s consent,” he explains. Majumdar explores just how close we are to fielding unmanned systems that can think for themselves using sensors and computers, and he looks over the horizon to what lies ahead, despite efforts from organizations like Human Rights Watch that are calling for legislation prohibiting autonomous vehicles altogether.
For all the promises and fears that present and future systems hold, even the best technology can be limited in its effectiveness if it is stovepiped. As retired Navy Captains Larry Osborn and Edward Lundquist point out, while the U.S. Navy has made strides toward implementing interoperable systems, all of the services “still procure vertical systems and develop different standards and interfaces. . . . To achieve interoperability, we need one standard architecture that legacy systems can interface with.” To illustrate the necessity of employing a standard architecture—for both the U.S. military and perhaps coalition organizations—the authors imagine a hostage situation near Somalia’s Puntland coast. When American aid workers go missing, Navy assets spring into action, along with European Union– and United Nations–related organizations, some in East Africa and the Middle East and others as far away as Mississippi. Navy forces and their allies collect information with technologies we recognize from today such as unmanned aerial vehicles and keep the appropriate parties informed thanks to sharing common software. While some of this isn’t reality today, they admit, “it’s an attainable vision for tomorrow.”
Over the last several decades, our naval partners in Central and South America have enjoyed growing economies and more stable governments, making them increasingly important allies. “Almost all of the nations in the hemisphere are making investments to better secure, control, and monitor their exclusive economic zones and territorial waters,” Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris explains in this month’s lead story. In particular, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru have modernized their navies and assumed greater leadership positions in multilateral exercises. But it appears that countries such as China, Russia, and Iran are eager to capitalize on South America’s resources and strategic position, making this area a “seam” between the Atlantic and Pacific. “Given the ever increasing capability, capacity, and willingness of our partners in Latin America to do more in the maritime domain here and around the world, and given the increasing importance of a Panama Canal expanding in global capacity, we must understand that South is Forward, too,” the author urges.
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief