U.S. military UAV guys talk a good game, but do they have their eye on the ball?

U.S. military UAV guys talk a good game, but do they have their eye on the ball?

By Emily Schneider
Best Defense office of remotelyism

What will allow the United States to keep its edge in unmanned armed weapons systems and continue to be the best fighting force in the free world? One might think the answer would be to continue developing better technology: smaller yet equally powerful drones, more life-like robots, and super-efficient striking systems. But the reality is much simpler than that. All America needs is better training for the technology it already has.

That, and a major doctrinal shift.

At least, that’s the impression I took away from a recent panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on "Sustaining the U.S. Lead on DoD Unmanned Systems," especially from the Air Force panelist, Col. Kenneth Callahan, director of the Air Force RPA Capabilities Division. He said at the very beginning of the panel that the countries that develop new drone technology are not always the ones who figure out how best to use it and continued with that theme throughout the discussion.

The other panelists were sure to mention what they saw as the biggest challenge: fiscal constraints placed on each of their branches by Congress’s restrictive budget. As Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, USMC, Unmanned Ground Systems CIO, HQMC Combat Development and Integration, said after quickly highlighting all of the new technology that has been implemented by the Marines since 9/11: "The future is bright … I wish the fiscal outlook was much the same." Somewhat strangely, all of the speakers seemed to be in agreement about what isn’t a challenge so far, and that’s collaboration between branches. Capt. Chris Corgnati of the U.S. Navy, who is deputy director of that service’s ISR capabilities, pointed out that cooperation among the forces for RPAs is the best that it’s ever been.

But Col. Callahan was certainly the most frank about the future facing the U.S. military if it fails to control the unmanned beast it has created. While Capt. Corgnati admitted that the Navy has yet to codify most of its "thoughts" on unmanned systems, he did so somewhat laughingly and after touting the operational impact of the unmanned aircraft the Navy "can’t get enough of." Col. Callahan on the other hand, pointed out that challenges currently exist for the technology the military already has, such as training people to operate and understand the systems and then retaining that corporate knowledge. Lt. Col. Hixson noted that the contractors who work with the military have better access to training and technology than the military does these days. Col. Callahan seemed confident that the country has the resources; he said the kids living in their mother’s basements in the United States today were "better" than kids living in their mom’s basements anywhere else in the world because of the technology they can access.

But no one on the panel seemed to connect these ideas in a way that seemed obvious to me: The military needs to change the way it thinks about the tech culture as a whole in a way that encourages recruitment of the brightest minds in the field.

If the future of unmanned armed systems in the United States depends so largely on such a basic necessity, i.e. training operators, then why isn’t the military doing more to build up institutional knowledge based soundly in technical fields? Probably because the "hacker," somewhat anarchist, independent culture that has become stereotypical in the tech field does not mesh well with the highly-disciplined, pro-government culture of the military. But bridging that gap — the one between the mothers’ basements or Silicon Valley and West Point — might be the only way to sustain the U.S. lead on unmanned systems.

Emily Schneider is a research associate for the International Security Program at the New America Foundation and is also an assistant editor for Foreign Policy‘s South Asia Channel.