Poised for Launch, or Sinking Fast?

By Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Over the past quarter-century, the U.S. military has embraced a wave of technological change that has constituted a revolution in military affairs. Unquestionably one of the most rapidly growing areas of technology adoption involves unmanned systems (UxS). Indeed, as the Naval Research Advisory Committee predicted in 2003: “The combat potential of unmanned vehicles is virtually unlimited . . . There is no question that the Fleet/Forces of the future will be heavily dependent upon UVs.”1

The expanding use of unmanned systems, especially armed, is not only changing the face of modern warfare, it is also altering the process of decision-making in combat operations. In his article “Do Drones Undermine Democracy?” P. W. Singer argues that the rise in drone use is changing the traditional roles of U.S. government branches in warfare, in which the executive has the role of commander-in-chief and the legislative that of declaring war (New York Times, 21 January 2012). For the United States, policy decisions made today will likely determine how these trends will impact unmanned maritime systems (UMS) in the next several decades.

The urgent demands of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have made the U.S. military a pioneer of unmanned technologies and spurred the development and employment of UxS to the point that they are creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago. And since these conflicts have occurred in largely landlocked countries, unmanned aerial systems and unmanned ground systems have, out of necessity, garnered the most attention and funding.

Now, with those conflicts winding down and the U.S. pivot to the largely maritime Asia-Pacific theater, UMS—those used under, on, and above the sea—are poised to play a much more prominent role in how the Navy and the nation deal with the spectrum of conflict from peace to war. However, this rise of UMS is not assured.

These systems will not reach their full potential unless important command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance considerations are addressed. Chief among those challenges is achieving the level of autonomy needed to move beyond the “one-man, one-joystick, one-vehicle” paradigm of past decades of unmanned-systems development. Achieving this level of autonomy is critical to reducing the spiraling manpower costs of operating unmanned systems. Indeed, until these costs are addressed, escalating manpower costs will increase the total operating costs of these systems and could well become the torpedo that sinks the Navy’s future use of UMS.

But as advanced degrees of autonomy are achieved and the systems begin to sense and adapt and allow blue forces to act within an adversary’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop, they well have to operate within our OODA loop. They may need to adapt to changing environments quickly without waiting for human-operator oversight, input, and decision-making. As UMS ultimately provide their own command and control and self-synchronization and become truly autonomous, can the naval profession change quickly enough to fully capitalize on their emerging capabilities?

Full Speed Ahead

The Department of Defense’s vision for unmanned systems is the integration of diverse capabilities to provide flexible options for warfighters while exploiting the inherent advantages of these technologies, including persistence the reduced risk to human life. This was emphasized in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that noted, “The increasing precision, persistence, and autonomy of unmanned systems hold great promise.”2 The FY 2011-2036 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap put the need for enhanced UxS autonomy even more emphatically: “DOD envisions unmanned systems seamlessly operating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision making required for the unmanned portion of the force structure.”3

The demand for UxS is especially acute in the Middle East and Asia Pacific regions, which will be the two major hubs for the U.S. military and especially the Navy. Both regions are increasingly characterized by an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat, which UxS are well-poised to help confront. In fact, the Joint Operational Access Concept explicitly identifies “unmanned systems, which could loiter to provide intelligence collection or fires in the objective area” as a key counter-area denial capability.4 Clearly UxS have an integral role to play in achieving the joint force and the Navy’s strategic goals.

In his 2013 Foreign Policy article “The New Triad,” retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, identified UxS as one of the three pillars of a New Triad (the others being special-operations forces and cyber capabilities):

The second capability in the New Triad is unmanned vehicles and sensors. This branch . . . includes not only the airborne attack “drones” that are endlessly debated at the moment, but unmanned surveillance vehicles in the air, on the ground, and on the ocean’s surface . . . Without people operating them, they can perform in far harsher environments and hold a higher degree of political deniability for covert and clandestine operations.5

Because it operates in all domains—air, surface, subsurface, ground, space, and cyberspace—the U.S. Navy has been on the forefront of UxS development. Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead demonstrated his commitment to developing a long-term vision for UMS when he directed the 28th CNO Strategic Studies Group to spend one year fashioning this way ahead. Leveraging the group’s work, the Navy has emphasized the need to enhance UxS C2 capabilities to allow one sailor to control multiple systems in an attempt to lower total ownership costs. This link between increased autonomy and decreased total operating cost has been a constant theme of Navy leadership.

Indeed, Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s Sailing Directions state: “Over the next 10 to 15 years . . . unmanned systems in the air and water will employ greater autonomy and be fully integrated with their manned counterparts.”6 He also addressed the importance of unmanned systems in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings articles “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters” (December 2011) and “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course” (July 2012), in which he argued that payloads, including unmanned systems, will increasingly become more important than platforms themselves.

Greater UxS Autonomy

Department of Defense and Navy plans for unmanned systems have a common theme of increasing UxS autonomy. This was emphasized in the 2012 Defense Science Board Task Force Report, which noted:

Instead of viewing autonomy as an intrinsic property of unmanned systems in isolation, the design and operation of unmanned systems needs to be considered in terms of human-systems collaboration . . . A key challenge for operators is maintaining the human-machine collaboration needed to execute their mission, which is frequently handicapped by poor design.7

This imperative to achieve greater autonomy is being driven by the prohibitively burdensome manpower requirements currently necessary to operate unmanned systems. Uniformed and civilian military officials, congressional researchers, and think tanks are universal in their contention that the cost of military manpower makes up the largest part of the total ownership cost of systems across all the services. But how expensive is military manpower?

It is beyond argument that overall manpower costs are the fastest-growing DOD accounts, even as the total number of military men and women decrease. In fact, personnel expenditures have risen from $74 billion in 2001 to $159 billion in 2012, an increase of almost 115 percent.8 Moreover, defense analysts have noted that between fiscal years 2001 and 2012, the compensation cost per active-duty service member increased by 56 percent, after being adjusted for inflation.9

Today, in the face of the continuing fiscal drawdown, the need to reduce these manning costs is not only pressing, it is urgent. The 2011 Budget Control Act mandated that future DOD expenditures be reduced by approximately $487 billion over the next decade. Although unmanned systems are identified as one of the few key capabilities for which funding levels were requested to be protected—in some areas even increased—UxS manning requirements must decrease to fully realize the value of these investments.

However, lessons learned throughout the development process of most unmanned systems demonstrate that they can actually increase manning requirements, as legions of technicians and operators work to ensure they work properly and are welcome additions to whatever warfighting capability they are trying to satisfy. The Air Force has estimated that the MQ-1 Predator requires a crew of about 168 personnel, while the MQ-9 Reaper requires 180 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk 300.10 As General Philip Breedlove, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, has emphasized: “The No. 1 manning problem in our Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms.”11 This is not a challenge restricted to the U.S. Air Force, but one faced by all the services.

While this is a less-than-desirable outcome for air and ground unmanned systems, the burden is often masked in the aerial or terrestrial domains. Regardless of how many people it takes to support one unmanned aerial system, in the case of UAVs flying in Afghanistan but operated from Nevada, the “tail” is not obvious to most. When operators or technicians finish their shift, they return to their home and the support they require is provided there, at no cost to the government.

This is not the case in the present concept of operations for unmanned maritime systems deployed from Navy ships. Every operator and technician must be embarked on the ship. Each person has a bunk, must be fed, generates administrative and overhead requirements, and has quality-of-life needs that must be met. This generates its own manpower needs and adds weight and space to the ships. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the biggest—and most rapidly rising—cost of ships is manpower, which makes up close to 70 percent of their total ownership cost. This massive manpower-induced portion of total operating cost has had the full attention at the highest levels of the Navy’s leadership for some time.

More UMS Autonomy

The Navy has long recognized the need to reduce manning on its ships. In 2008, then-CNO Gary Roughead addressed this imperative in this way:

There’s no question that crew sizes have got to come down. We, frankly, are not aggressive enough in employing the technologies that allow us to take people off ships. It’s largely a cultural thing we’ve got to break through. In the past, we’ve had some initiatives under way but they had a hard time taking through.12

One of the ways the Navy is seeking to address this challenge is to ensure that when UMS systems are embarked on ships, commonality is a key goal. This is aligned with the DOD goal of seeking a common controller for multiple unmanned systems.13 Following the guidance of successive Naval Science and Technology Strategic Plans, the Navy laboratory community, partnering with industry, is conducting leading-edge research to address the UMS manning challenge. These initiatives include creating a common controller for multiple unmanned systems, programs to enable cooperative autonomy and autonomous command and control of UxS, and distributed control of unmanned systems using widgets, among other projects at varying levels of technical maturity.14

The commitment of the Navy’s leadership to increase the autonomy of UMS as well as enhance their compatibility with their manned counterparts is clear. As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently noted, “The unmanned systems and platforms we are developing today are wholly integrated with our manned ships, aircraft and submarines.”15 And given the total-operating-cost challenge with which the Navy must deal as it deploys increasing numbers of UMS to the Fleet, it is likely the service will move even more aggressively to make unmanned systems increasingly autonomous. In his July 2013 newsletter, the Navy’s Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, Vice Admiral Ted Branch, captured the essence of the drive for more UxS autonomy:

As processing advances, it will allow complex perception-based autonomy [that] . . . will reduce manning required for planning, execution, and data processing associated with UxS. The unmanned system will optimize their routes through threats and obstacles, assess their ability to complete primary missions or switch to alternatives, and process their data “take” at the point of collection.16

And while the focus—and funding—for the past decade has been on unmanned aerial and ground systems, industry observers note a shift in emphasis to UMS. For example, funding for unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles has increased from an average of $150 million a year in 2008 to approximately a billion dollars in fiscal year 2014.17 But as the Navy makes all UMS more autonomous, how will this impact the science and art of naval warfare?

A Potential Dark Side?

In his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s robot HAL (heuristically programmed algorithmic computer) turns on the human astronauts. Few fear that a 21st-century HAL will turn on its masters, but the issues involved with fielding increasingly autonomous unmanned systems are complex and challenging. And given naval forces’ need to operate forward and independently, unmanned systems used in the maritime battle space will likely raise the need to address the question of autonomy. How much is enough; how much may be too much?

Achieving increased autonomy for UMS will require enhancing their ability to sense and adapt to changing environments. Thus, as the environment and/or mission changes in unpredictable ways, the ability to sense and adapt will allow unmanned systems to find the optimal solution for achieving their mission. This will enable UMS to achieve much greater speed in decision-making than is currently possible, and allow naval forces to act within an adversary’s OODA loop. But are we ready for unmanned systems to operate without our decision-making, to operate inside our OODA loops?

Indeed, not so fast. The DOD has issued policy guidance to ensure humans do remain in the loop. A directive by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter emphasized: “Human input and ongoing verification are required for autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems to help prevent unintended engagements. These systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.”18

However, such direction has not allayed concerns that autonomous systems may operate without sufficient human interaction and outside our own OODA loop. An article in The Economist noted: “As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming—or at least appearing to assume—moral agency . . . As they grow more sophisticated, machines will carry out orders autonomously.”19 More recently, A New York Times op-ed addressed the issue of autonomy for unmanned systems this way:

If you find the use of remotely piloted warrior drones troubling, imagine that the decision to kill a suspected enemy is not made by an operator in a distant control room, but by the machine itself. Imagine that an aerial robot studies the landscape below, recognizes hostile activity, calculates that there is minimal risk of collateral damage, and then, with no human in the loop, pulls the trigger. . . .  Powerful momentum is propelling us toward the day when we cede the same lethal authority to software.20

These are the kinds of issues the Navy must address as it strives to find the right balance of autonomy and human interaction—to balance these two often-opposing forces—in their efforts to push UMS capabilities to the cutting edge. This is not a trivial undertaking and, as Lieutenant General David Deptula has suggested: “The challenge before us is to transform today to dominate an operational environment that has yet to evolve, and to counter adversaries who have yet to materialize.”21

The guidance from Navy leadership is clear, and most agree the U.S. Navy knows what it wants to achieve with UMS, but not what capabilities and technologies it needs to field these systems with the right balance of autonomy and human interaction. The Navy would be well-served to follow the guidance of the Defense Science Board report The Role of Autonomy in DOD Systems, which noted: “A key challenge facing unmanned systems developers is the move from a hardware-oriented, vehicle-centric development and acquisition process to one that emphasizes the primacy of software in creating autonomy.”22 The issue of “the primacy of software” is one that deserves special consideration. For example, the manned F-35 Lightning has 10 billion lines of computer code, and there is human supervision by the pilot. How many lines of code will need to be built into an unmanned system to get the balance of autonomy and human interaction “just right?”

Into the Future

The Navy will continue to operate forward in carrying out the work of ensuring the security and prosperity of the United States. But in the face of a substantial A2/AD threat, the service will need more and more to turn to a wide-array of UMS, both to enhance its warfighting effectiveness and to keep its operators out of harm’s way. For tomorrow’s Navy—and especially for the Navy-after-next—UMS will become not just warfighting tools, but warfighters’ partners, in an increasingly challenging security environment.

None of this can happen unless the optimal balance of autonomy and operator oversight and—when necessary—intervention, is achieved. This goal must be supported not only by the top levels of naval leadership, but also by leadership at the programmatic level, from acquisition professionals to requirements officers to scientists and engineers in the Navy and industry fielding UMS with the appropriate balance of autonomy and operator oversight. The time to have this informed discussion is now, not after disparate systems are fielded, and the Naval Institute forum is the right venue to do this.

  1. Naval Research Advisory Committee report, Roles of Unmanned Vehicles, March 2003, www.onr.navy.mil/nrac.
  2. Quadrennial Defense Review (Washington, D.C., Department of Defense, 2010).
  3. FY 2011-2036 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap (Washington, D.C., Department of Defense, 2011).
  4. Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept (Washington, D.C., 17 January 2012), 10.
  5. Admiral James Stavridis, “The New Triad,” Foreign Policy, 20 June 2013.
  6. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, “Sailing Directions, 3 September 2011, www.navy.mil/cno/cno_sailing_direction_final-lowres.pdf.
  7. Defense Science Board, Task Force Report: The Role of Autonomy in DOD Systems, July 2012, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=722318.
  8. Congressional Budget Office report, Costs of Military Pay and Benefits in the Defense Budget, 14 November 2012; Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the U.S. Government, FY 2012, Historical Tables.
  9. Mackenzie Eaglen and Michael O’Hanlon, “Military Entitlements Are Killing Readiness,” Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2013; Todd Harrison, Rebalancing Military Compensation: An Evidence-Based Approach, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 12 July 2012.
  10. The Economist, “Flight of the Drones: Why the Future of Air Power Belongs to Unmanned Systems,” 8 October 2011; Mark Thompson, “Stealth Army,” Time, 9 January 2012; David S. Cloud, “Civilian Contractors Playing Key Roles in U.S. Drone Operations,” Los Angeles Times, 29 December 2011. These numbers reflect the personnel required to pilot the aircraft, operate its sensors, analyze the data it collects, and conduct maintenance.
  11. Quoted in Mark V. Schanz, “The Reaper Harvest,” Air Force Magazine, April 2011.
  12. Phillip Ewing, “CNO: Reducing Crew Sizes a Top Priority,” Navy Times, 27 March 2008.
  13. Eric Schechter, “One for All: DoD Seeks a Common Controller for Many Unmanned Systems,” C4ISR Journal, 2 October 2013.
  14. Naval Science and Technology Strategic Plan (Washington, D.C., Office of Naval Research, 2012).
  15. Raymond Mabus, “Technology on Approach: Unmanned Systems at Sea,” The Hook magazine, fall 2013.
  16. U.S. Navy, Information Dominance Corps Newsletter, June 2013.
  17. Dan Parsons, “Bigger Brains, Better Batteries Will Enable New Missions for Robotic Submarines,” National Defense, September 2013, 28-29.
  18. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” memorandum, 21 November 2012, http://www.defense.gov/. See also “Carter: Human Input Required for Autonomous Weapon Systems,” Inside the Pentagon, 29 November 2012.
  19. “Flight of the Drones: Why the Future of Air Power Belongs to Unmanned Systems,” The Economist, 8 October 2011.
  20. Bill Keller, “Smart Drones,” The New York Times, 16 March 2013.
  21. Lieutenant General David Deptula, USAF, Remarks at the C4ISR Journal Symposium, 13 October 2010.
  22. Department of Defense, Defense Science Board Task Force Report, The Role of Autonomy in DOD Systems, July 2012.

Captain Galdorisi directs the Corporate Strategy Group at the Navy’s C4ISR Center of Excellence in San Diego, California. His Navy career included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He is the author or coauthor of eight books.


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