The past decade has witnessed a dramatic increase in the use of unmanned systems, with every service branch seeking the latest technology to increase efficiency and reach mission accomplishment. These systems’ ability to operate in access-denied areas has contributed to the debate over their role in the find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, disseminate (F3EAD) cycle. There is no refuting that unmanned systems are a force multiplier, allowing commanders to minimize overall risk while increasing the chances for success. Commander Michael Dobbs analyzed the employment of unmanned maritime systems in his December 2013 Proceedings article “Unman Your Battle Stations!” observing that rapid technological advances and increased effectiveness will impact how we think about and plan for future wars. As Commander Dobbs might put it, welcome to the post-heroic age!
The proliferation of unmanned systems and the introduction of cyber warfare have already altered modern warfare, as evidenced by the perception that these methods are somehow disconnected from actual war or even outright illegal. This misunderstanding highlights the fact that both the Navy and society as a whole are only beginning to grapple with the formidable task of truly comprehending how these modes will affect future force levels and shape capability requirements.
Williamson Murray’s book Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (Cambridge University Press, 2011) provides the conceptual framework to navigate these transformations. The overall purpose of a military organization is to win wars; appropriate innovation before a conflict and adaptability after hostilities have begun are essential. Murray writes: “Without intellectual preparation, the adaptation that is always necessary will come at a far higher expenditure of the lives of those on the sharp end.” In peacetime, he says, military organizations must be realistic and honest in evaluating and assessing exercises and training, practices that lead to faster adaptation. In the case of integrating unmanned systems, failure to adjust will enable our adversaries to infiltrate our decision cycle and create asymmetric match-ups.
Looking at this through John Boyd’s concept of the OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act), how we carry out the first two steps is absolutely crucial. We must determine our position in relation to the variables of technological advantage, geopolitical realities, current threats, and fiscal constraints. The close analysis and synthesis of relevant historical case studies provides a great starting point.
Lessons from World War I remain relevant. Both sides believed offense held the advantage, and a quick victory would go to the forces capable of tolerating incredibly high casualties. By late 1914 both sides had nearly exhausted their resources and focused on defense. Each attempted to adapt to new realities, but stagnation continued. Changes brought by the industrial revolution, compounded with the unpreparedness of military organizations, presented problems that Murray says, “were almost insoluble from the perspective of 1913.”
Germany, relying on a vigorous lessons-learned process, adapted to actual conditions and developed new doctrine advocating defense through well-executed counterattacks and maneuver warfare. Murray emphasizes the importance of adaptation during World War I, stating that in the 1914–18 timeframe, tactical developments “represent the most important and complex revolution in military affairs to occur during the course of the twentieth century and perhaps history.” However, Germany’s experience also shows that tactical adaptions will not make up for strategic ineptitude. The point here is that rapid technological advancements impact how wars are fought and push military organizations to determine their implications.
The institution that can turn innovation into genuine capability will have the distinct advantage. The Department of the Navy’s Transformation Plan 2014–2016 reemphasizes “the proliferation of unmanned systems” as a key goal. The Navy has the requisite institutional culture to take the lead on the development and inventive employment of these systems.
Unmanned systems will never be a panacea, nor will units ever have as many as they demand. However, leaders should anticipate greater employment of these systems and aggressively seek out applicable lessons learned, build relationships with industry leaders, obtain prototypes, and share new tactics, techniques, and procedures across the Department of Defense.