The Unmanning of the Navy

By Steven J. Forsberg

As the U.S. Navy accelerates a trend toward automation and reduced manpower requirements, the term “unmanning” is apropos. Aside from its definition “to remove the men from” (and the Navy is certainly removing both men and women from traditional tasks as mechanization and efficiency increase), “unmanning” can also mean “to cause to give up manly courage or spirit.” Even while lionizing the courage of those caught up in deadly combat, the Navy strives to eliminate the need for that very bravery (attributed primarily to males historically, though the modern reader should recognize that men have no monopoly on valor or spirit). To the extent that the Navy succeeds in reducing the danger and discomfort of its members, it is also inevitably reducing the demand for characteristics that have been the foundation of its culture. Not only will the future Navy be more automated with less need for sailors, many of those remaining will be less “sailor-like,” at least from the current perspective.

Unmanned vehicles on the sea, in the air, and under water will play an increasing military role. Just as significantly, advances in technology will produce more comfort and less peril for those who remain. As these changes take place, there will be effects, albeit hard to quantify, on the culture of the Navy. The changes may be painful and unwanted, but they will happen. Technology can usually be adopted faster than people and organizations can adapt. One example of how this situation can make tempers flare is the recent effort to establish a medal for drone pilots and “cyber warriors.”1 Scrapped after a ferocious backlash, the fiasco serves as a warning for future leaders attempting to implement the changes for which technologization will call.

The Endangered Human?

History rings with the protests of people objecting that they can never be replaced by machines, even as they are. The military is no exception to this pattern. For much of history, however, machines have required significant manpower to repair and maintain. Thus, on the modern warship, only a handful of sailors are needed to actually “operate” the ship. Most man hours are spent maintaining the technology that does the work. But as automation improves and machines become ever-more reliable and even able to fix themselves, the need for a reservoir of human power and knowledge will continue to decline.

An example of this is the antiaircraft role on surface vessels. In the World War II era, ships bristled with machine guns and various calibers of antiaircraft guns. They were operated manually, and often significant manpower was required to keep them feed with ammunition. As ships transitioned to antiaircraft missiles, far less manpower was needed to actually operate the system. But early rail-launching systems were complicated, necessitating specialist care in pneumatics, hydraulics, servos, and motors, and sundry other areas. Thus, manpower was reduced and redirected. Today, missiles are typically vertically launched from sealed containers. “With VLS [vertical launch system] proliferating, the only real need for guided missile technicians is to perform preventive and corrective maintenance.” 2

Another more widespread example is that of modern electronics. The rapid development of various BIT (built-in test) and LRU (line-replaceable unit) mechanisms has vastly reduced the need for human troubleshooting on the increasingly rare occasion that systems fail. The result is a paradigm of “idiots and experts,” where low-level techs merely need to know how to hit a test button and pull a unit out of a rack if the light is red. If the unit needs repair, it is sent to a rear-area depot, where an expert can work on it. Eliminated is the need for a large “middle class” of techs who have gained journeyman skills through experience and who can handle various intermediate levels of fault. In Navy parlance, middle class could be translated as “petty officer.”

Completely unmanned operational units will probably function in a similar manner in the future. Sufficiently reliable and “smart” enough to operate without direct human intervention, they will need only periodic maintenance. That will require minimal skills, consisting primarily of swapping out bad LRUs. In-depth maintenance will take place far to the rear and be done by specialist experts.

In an idealized system, the forward operating area, with its attendant danger and discomfort, will be unmanned. There will be a minimally manned buffer zone where operational maintenance will take place by relatively unskilled techs. Finally, most remaining manpower will be in a rear safe area where experts can comfortably fix and maintain components. As the reliability and independence of such systems improve, there will be a diminishing need for human intervention. Ultimately the question becomes whether people are even needed, at least on the operational platform.

Such systems will further alter an already stressed Navy culture. The service has long prided itself on the dangers it faces, be they natural or human. Since the days of “wooden ships and iron men,” the Navy has rewarded the taking of physical risk that is associated with sailing and fighting on the seas.3 People in “comfortable” jobs have traditionally been viewed askance and penalized during promotion and job assignment. But what happens as the ratio of salty toughs is ever reduced by comparison with that of shirtsleeve day workers?

Warriors No More?

Anthropocentrism seems to be a stubborn human trait. We like to envision humans as being at the center of, and controlling, that which we hold dear. And we hold few concepts dearer than the ideal of the warrior. In the movie Top Gun, it was a human pilot who basked in the adulation of the crew after a successful mission. In Pacific Rim, the human race has built enormous robots, but people are in them risking their lives and controlling the machines, puppet-like.

An even more telling example is the science-fiction movie Surrogates, in which Army soldiers sit in a comfortable room, remotely operating combat robots that fight on a battlefield far away. Yet the humans look as would be expected for those performing military missions. With crew cuts and in apparently good physical condition, they wear uniforms and spring to their feet when superiors address them. But why are military standards of fitness, grooming, and custom required when the historical conditions that gave rise to them are gone?

When combat requires little more than a mouse-click, physical fitness becomes far less important. Without the need to perform under conditions of danger and confusion, there is far less need for a strict military hierarchy. A future control center is likely to be staffed more like a call center than a traditional military unit. As danger and discomfort are reduced, so is the need for “hardened” men and women who can perform smoothly under adverse physical conditions and in the face of danger.

Of course, the idea of the warrior risking his or her life is central to the self-identification of the military, as well as in the minds of the public. Many of the benefits the services claim, not least of which is public adulation, are due to the idea that being in the military entails great danger and hardship. As increasingly sophisticated technology removes the people (at least “our” people) from the battlefield, the reality of being in the military will increasingly conflict with that ideal. Just as today’s sailor lives a life of leisure and splendor compared with his counterpart in the age of Nelson, so tomorrow’s service members. The problem is not that things change. Rather, it is that they are now changing faster than people and organizations can adapt. As change happens in fractions of a lifetime, rather than in multiple lifetimes, human obstinacy will create greater cultural frictions.

The military services have evolved as specialized services largely because of the need to inspire and manage people in conditions of intense risk and hardship. As those lessen, so does the need for such personnel. Tasks can increasingly be assigned to civilians, be they government employees or contractors. Pay and benefits can be reduced, and the attrition attendant to stringent military standards can be attenuated.

Thus, not only will the future Navy rely more on unmanned platforms, but more non-military personnel will be doing the maintaining and even remote operating of such platforms. The arc of the military manning universe may be long, but it tends toward zero. The ultimate end, in some distant future, may well be a robotic system that responds to civilian leadership, an entire military without a trace of the unreliability or expense of humans.

Of course, a completely robotic military appears far away today. But as remotely operated and/or autonomous platforms prove their worth, the trend toward them will accelerate. And, importantly from a cultural perspective, some of the highest-profile tasks may be the first to be dehumanized. Pilots have been centerpieces of Navy culture who take great risks, exemplars of physical and mental skills. Many once scoffed at the idea of automatic landing systems, let alone totally unmanned aircraft. Yet, that age is arriving. The pilot of the future may be a commuting suburbanite who works in an office environment rather than a risk-taking adventurer who flies in the face of danger.Similarly, reduced manning initiatives will decrease the number of sailors who actually go to sea. Newer platforms, incorporating ever-advancing technology, will require fewer and fewer crew. Routine and dangerous sailing will be done with unmanned vessels, the manned vessels hanging further back. And in the submarine arena, where the requirement to provide life support levies vast engineering requirements, the advantages of unmanned vessels will be even more welcome.

Manpower Implications

Unmanned platforms will require a different system in terms of personnel, and this will dovetail with the reduced manning of remaining manned platforms. For much of history, the personnel levels in warships resembled a pyramid, with few on top and large numbers of seamen at the bottom. In the 20th century, this system adopted to the need for a larger proportion of skilled workers. Although often still called pyramidal, the Navy manpower pool was actually diamond-shaped, with few at the top or the bottom, but large numbers in the middle. The most numerous enlisted ranks were E4 and E5, over halfway up the enlisted pay chain.

The future personnel structure will probably look like an inverted T. At the bottom there will be a contingent, reduced in size, of lower-ranked technicians. Even there, however, most will have more time and training than is typically found in today’s lower ranks. Above them will be a narrow pipeline of ranks whose expertise will lead them up a promotion ladder. Many of the former middle positions (in both officer and enlisted pools) will no longer be filled by the uniformed military but by civilians, to the extent that they are not filled by machines.

Much of this change, including an emphasis on unmanned platforms, will be due to skyrocketing personnel costs. “The relatively high personnel numbers can be partially attributed to hiring young persons (18 to 22 years old) and training them aboard ship. If destroyers were composed of only fully trained and experienced personnel, then some manpower requirements would drop significantly.”4 This fact has been long recognized, but the ever-increasing cost of maintaining manpower in the all-volunteer force will continue to spur action.

The reason that much work will be transferable to civilian workers is, in large part, that military technology is increasingly “off the shelf.” Military technology used to be specialized, often pushing the envelope in terms of advancement. However, these platforms are now more often designed to use commercially available technology. There will always be exceptions; there aren’t many commercial aircraft catapults, for example. But things like computers are ubiquitous and purchased off the shelf, and even specialized military equipment is frequently designed using off-the-shelf components.

Blue-Collar Workers First . . .

Not only manual maintenance tasks will be automated. As various machine intelligence techniques advance, people will play a diminishing role in planning, coordinating, and controlling military events. Tasks that once took entire staffs will be done by machine. Already computers have leaped onto bridges, and staff centers to do work once carried out by teams of personnel, both enlisted and officer. Even sacrosanct jobs such as managing a flight deck will eventually be computerized.5 From discrete low-level operational analysis to higher-level planning, computers using algorithms based on huge datasets are vying with humans for the role of commander. The future admiral’s command post might be almost as sparsely populated as the unmanned vehicle in the combat area.

This raises a thorny issue with regards to traditional training and promotion patterns. In the past, seniority was attained by successive levels of experience in carrying out tasks to assist the top commander. If these types of duties (such as mission planning for aircraft) can be accomplished more quickly, accurately, and cheaply by computer, then where will personnel get the experience to become senior managers? Secondly, one of the hallmarks of seniority was the need to wrangle ever-larger numbers of subordinates. If the job of commanding officer becomes primarily giving orders to a computerized system, then people skills are less important.

The Navy has already seen a shift toward a new leadership paradigm. No longer is the charismatic leader the model the Navy strives to produce (though he or she can still be tolerated in small doses). Instead the service is adopting a different ideal. “A fourth image, that of the expert, is a form not of leadership but of domination . . . Followers give their services willingly because they recognize in the leader skills that they cannot themselves command. They trust the leader not in a moral fashion, not for what he is, but rather for what he can do; that is, for his technical effectiveness.”6

The hardships and dangers of naval service have long served as a kind of filter. Those not inured to them were more likely to leave voluntarily, and the inability to adjust to them often meant involuntary separation of one sort or another. But in a service with less danger and hardship, how should the military select for advancement? This is already an issue with reference to pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Even before 2000, it was recognized that “developing UAV technology is of relatively limited value if, as a category of weapon systems, they are relegated to cultural insignificance.”7 As an organization, the military tries to impose its traditions and values on the technology it adopts. But sometimes the technology changes the very underpinnings of those traditions and values, creating conflict. It is rarely a smooth or pleasant process when the military is forced to adapt culturally.

It may be a very long time before completely unmanned warships perform months-long patrols with nary a human hand interfering with the mission. Indeed, such an extreme may never come to pass. But the last couple of decades have demonstrated the expanding potential of unmanned and minimally manned systems. This will clash with the public’s view of the military, and the military’s view of itself. As manpower levels drop and those remaining face less danger and hardship, wrenching reevaluations will take place of a vast number of intricate and unmapped relations within and without the military. Objections will be made to technological progress because of the social stresses it causes. Still, in the end the utility of the technology usually wins out.

Some view the deployment of unmanned and safer technologies as weakness. Wired for War author Peter Singer says, “It makes you look like cowards, you’re sending out machines to fight for you.”8 But new military machinery has often been vilified, usually by the parties on the receiving end. It may be easy to dismiss enemy observations, but even within our services, this paradigm shift will continue to cause unease. “If we mark military prowess merely by personal physical exposure,” writes Jamie Holmes, “then yes, a blurry line has been crossed as Air Force pilots move from, as Blair put it, ‘ten thousand feet’ to ‘ten thousand miles.’”9

            But despite the existential agony they may cause, unmanned platforms are coming. Military leaders should not underestimate just how disruptive such equipment will be, not only to our enemies but also to us.

1. “Pentagon Scraps Medal for Drone Pilots after Uproar,” Reuters, 15 April 2013,

2. James B. Coe, “Projected Manpower Requirements of the Next Generation Destroyer,” master’s thesis, March 1995, Naval Postgraduate School, 17.

3. Address of Hon. Samuel S. Cox of New York, at Huron, Dakota, July 1889, 14. “Thanks to Farragut and his wooden ships and iron men . . .”

4. Coe, “Projected manpower requirements,” 44.

5. “Deck Operations Course of Action Planner,” MIT Humans and Automation Lab,

6. F. G. Bailey, Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), 9.

7. Major Keith E. Tobin, “Piloting the USAF’s UAV Fleet: Pilots, Non-Rated Officers, Enlisted or Contractor?” Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, June 1999, 9,

8. YouTube, interview with Peter Singer, author of Wired for War,

9. Jamie Holmes, “Why Drone Pilots Deserve Medals,” Slate magazine, 2 August 2012.


Mr. Forsberg is a criminal-defense appellate attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He holds a master's degree in history and a Juris Doctorate. From 1986 to 1991 he was enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a cryptologic technician (technical).


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