April 1, 2011  


Unmanned systems could be casualties of budget pressures

It’s amazing how quickly attitudes can turn in Washington. A decade ago, words like “unmanned” weren’t even voiced in defense policy debates. But now, as Stars and Stripes has reported, the brass has seemingly turned about-face on the issue of robotics. Far from “resisting” these new technologies, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly excoriated his generals (especially those he hadn’t fired in the Air Force) in a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., just a few years back, the leadership now regularly uses words like “embrace” and “commitment” and “fully integrating” unmanned systems into traditional missions.

But is the future of these systems as bright as generally thought? While I am optimistic about the robotics revolution, potential roadblocks abound in everything from software and hardware advancements to legal and ethical concerns. But perhaps the most vexing potential blockers for these and any other new weapons programs are three that we don’t talk about enough. The real challenges are often about more human matters and thus lie outside the realm of technology itself.

The first challenge that rarely gets aired in discussions about new technologies is our willingness to pull out the checkbook. The growing austerity of the defense budget environment is an accepted reality, and it’s becoming clear that the budget is on course to flatten and then shrink in the years ahead.

The most recent news is that the Defense Department will seek about $113 billion for new weapons in the upcoming fiscal year. That seems like a lot, but is about $7 billion less than the Pentagon had in its plans a year ago. The same rough decline will happen in research and development, with the Pentagon seeking $75.7 billion at last report, $4.7 billion below the $80.4 billion previously sought.

What matters even more is how that shrinking pie (made even smaller by a continuing failure to deal with spiraling personnel costs) is divided. That is where the true blood will begin to fly in the halls of the Pentagon. The chart on page 10 shows the 25 current costliest Pentagon acquisitions programs, under the last official plan approved by Congress. Two things stand out about this list. The first is that most of these programs are far from any point of completion in the near term. For example, according to the Government Accountability Office, the current plan for F-35 acquisitions runs to $273.3 billion (2,443 aircraft at $112 million average unit price) and another roughly $1 trillion in lifetime operations and maintenance costs. The numbers in this remaining balance category may change in the years ahead (such as whether the F-35 expands in costs and delays again — something once not kosher to talk about in the halls of power but now a bet that many of us would be willing to take). And some programs might even be cut, as looks to be the fate of the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. But the underlying point is that there is a huge amount of spending still required to complete commitments on current programs of record.

The second thing that stands out about the Pentagon’s biggest program commitments is that there isn’t a single U — for “unmanned” — on the list.

The issue here isn’t that there won’t be new spending on new systems, but that squeezing programs once supported by contingency funds into the main-line budget and into a smaller overall pie is going to be difficult and at times lead to fights that could turn downright nasty. As the Pentagon wrestles with declining overall budget numbers, the new becomes more directly threatening to the old. And in bureaucracies, the old is not only more established, but is often at an advantage in any battle. It is more likely to have internal constituencies and stronger support from members of Congress protecting existing factories and jobs in their district versus the potential of future program offices and future pork barrel spending.


But new technologies in a bureaucracy don’t merely encounter the hurdle of the checkbook; they also face the problem of time. Making it past the initial obstacle of recognition and acceptance, as unmanned systems seem to have done, is tough enough for a new technology, but then a dual challenge often strikes: The overall promise of a technology is frequently judged by, and therefore conceptually limited to, the original context in which it was first used, rather than new situations. Secondly, new technology is typically judged by the capabilities and flaws of its first models, rather than where it is clearly headed.

History abounds with examples that illustrate this point. The Gatling gun, for instance, was invented in 1861 and offered to the Union Army, but the only reported use in Civil War combat was by a salesperson showing it off. Indeed, 15 years later, Gen. George Custer had the opportunity to take four Gatling guns with his 7th Cavalry on its expeditions in the Dakotas. But Custer thought the guns, which he viewed as mere supporting artillery, would only slow him down. We would likely remember his “Last Stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn differently had he not left the Gatlings back at the Fort Lincoln.

In 1884, Hiram Maxim took the technology to the next level with the first self-powered machine gun. It would take almost a decade, but the Maxim gun was able to make that crucial leap into service. Importantly, however, its first effective uses came not in what were viewed as the major wars of the period but by colonial forces fighting the 19th century’s versions of today’s counterinsurgencies. Introduced into the Matabele War in Rhodesia in 1894, it proved devastatingly effective. During one engagement, for example, 50 soldiers with four Maxim guns fought off 5,000 warriors. As it was described in the poem “The Modern Traveller”: Whatever happens, We have got The Maxim gun, And they have not.

But despite this success, the machine gun didn’t easily make the next leap that unmanned systems face today, of being integrated into the overall force for the full range of traditional missions. While the Maxim was seen as useful for colonial war against inferior adversaries fighting with asymmetric tactics, it really wasn’t viewed as a game-changer in the context of war among the traditional “powers” with state military capabilities. Machine guns’ success still couldn’t overcome the fundamental belief that when traditional powers came to blows on European battlefields, the notion of élan — the utter spirit to win — would triumph. This was primarily due to the assumptions in existing doctrine, such as the French pre-war military blueprint Plan XVII, that technology was less important than the man. (Sound familiar?) But the resistance to machine guns wasn’t just arrogance in the guise of doctrine; it was also a judgment based on the limitations of the first wave of the technology, which was correct but shortsighted. Officers in the period talked about how machine guns might be good for taking on inferior powers, but they couldn’t be trusted in a battle against professional foes because in the hands of untrained users the guns jammed frequently and produced a great amount of smoke, which revealed their position. Just as some people today limit unmanned aircraft systems to counterinsurgency (COIN) roles in accessible airspace, the technology was viewed as unreliable and easily defeated in any other context.

Those evaluating the early models of machine guns in battle failed to weigh what would happen next, including the natural evolution of better training and continued improvements of the technology, including smokeless powder. Indeed, the push-back against machine guns for revealing positions because of their black powder smoke is similar to the present push-back against the ability of unmanned aircraft to operate in denied airspace. It’s just as much of a problem for the prior technology (rifles and manned aircraft) as for the new one. Even so, the British, who had first embraced the machine gun, entered World War I still discounting the technology’s use in conventional war. Indeed, it would take another two years of painful experience, culminating in almost 60,000 British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, before they began to fundamentally change tactics and doctrine to reflect the machine gun’s impact on battle.


Parallel to the roadblock of failing to account for a technology’s move forward into newer generations of capability and training improvements is the all-too-frequent obstacle of placing too much faith in weapons that worked in previous conflicts. The stakes are so high in war that militaries very reasonably place an immense value on going to war with something proven in battles of the past. The problem occurs when there is a gap between conflicts. Militaries can overvalue the time of the supposedly “proven technology” but undervalue how changes since that period may have made the technology inferior.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the history of the shift to mechanization a few years after the machine gun. When the U.S. Army began to talk about replacing horses with tanks prior to World War II, Gen. Hamilton Hawkins lamented the “foolish and unjustified discarding of horses” and blamed the “sheep-like rush to mechanization and motorization without clear thinking or any apparent ability to visualize what takes place on the field of maneuver or the battlefield.” Similarly, Maj. Gen. John Knowles Herr argued to Congress in early 1939 that “we must not be led to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse.”

These officers were right. Horses had about 4,000 more years of proven experience at war, while tanks had a few years of mostly unimpressive experience at the end of World War I. When it came to reliable operation and maintenance, a tank had nothing on a horse, and indeed, still doesn’t today. But the generals were wrong about where the “proven” argument took them. As late as August 1939, a U.S. Army magazine published a series of articles lauding the Polish choice to maintain its cavalry as guidance to the U.S. national security planning. The editors should have felt silly reading these words after the events of September 1939, but such attitudes continued inside the Army. Even after the 1940 fall of France to the Nazi blitzkrieg and despite the U.S. Army’s 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers that demonstrated the value of the tank, many generals were not persuaded. Herr, for example, still argued that “not one more horse will I give up for a tank,” and at the end of 1940 tried to cajole George Patton to leave the nascent armored force by offering him command of a cavalry division. Even when Herr shifted tactics in 1941 and admitted that armored forces might have some utility, there was an important caveat: It was best suited an as aid to the old technology, integrated into a force that didn’t have to fundamentally change. (Herr continued to argue for capabilities of the horse into the Korean War.)


Although there is no one as openly obstructionist in the present U.S. military as Herr, there are signs that new technologies are yet again being judged in a way that conceptually limits their expansion beyond their early capabilities and contexts, and bureaucratically limits them against “proven” technology with stronger budget constituencies. Such issues are visible in everything from the difficulty some in the Air Force are having visualizing unmanned aircraft beyond the benevolent airspace context of COIN and the first-generation capabilities of Predator-like remote pilot operation, to resistance among some in Naval Air Systems Command to changing from the proven human skill at carrier deck landings or some in Army aviation’s challenge of conceptualizing UAS as something beyond a mere aid to the manned Apache attack helicopter fleet.

Facing these issues will be as important to the future of new technologies and our optimal use of them as to the technologies we end up buying. The historic lesson we should take away is that the solution is neither full-scale resistance nor full-scale change solely for change’s sake. Rather, the winners of comparable situations have been those who 1) preserved parts of their budget for new technologies and research and development, even in the toughest of fiscal times, rather than funding only the old (as the Navy, facing the tougher budget environment of the Great Depression, still managed to do with aircraft carriers), 2) visualized the use of new technologies beyond their original contexts and capabilities and adjusted their doctrine accordingly (as the Germans did with the Maxim Gun in World War I), and 3) resisted the lure of the “proven” by conducting experimentation and implementing the lessons learned (as the Army finally managed to do with mechanization in the lead up to World War II).

Tough budgetary environments, first-generation limitsand reliance on the “proven” are often crucial barriers to change, but history also shows that they can’t prevent the future from happening. They can only delay our effective adaptation to it.

P.W. SINGER is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”