The Future of the Military is Robots Building Robots

Why tomorrow's arsenal can't be created with the tools of the past.

Official U.S. Air Force / Flickr Creative Commons
Official U.S. Air Force / Flickr Creative Commons

From the B-2 bomber to the M1 Abrams tank, the United States has for decades developed, built, and fielded the most advanced and capable weapon systems in the world. That’s changing because of declining budgets, emerging technologies, and global competition from rising powers like China. Today, for the first time in recent history, the Pentagon is in danger of losing its vast technological advantages over potential adversaries. And the evolution of the Air Force’s most recent warplane provides a cautionary tale of what may lay in store.

The development of the F-22 — a next-generation fighter with advanced stealth and electronic warfare capabilities — took 22 years and cost, in constant dollars, roughly 60 percent more than the Manhattan Project. Building each aircraft also took several years, and today, with production complete, the U.S. Air Force has roughly 187 F-22s. The aircraft is expected to stay in service through the 2040s, up to 66 years after engineers first began developing the plane. By comparison, the development of the F-4 in the late 1950s took about 6 years and cost nearly 95 percent less, in constant dollars, than the F-22.

Of course, there is really no comparison between the quality of an F-22 and an F-4 — they operate in different eras and face different threats. There is also no comparison between an F-22 and most current combat aircraft around the world. A recent RAND study anticipates an "exchange ratio" wherein the United States would down 27 adversary aircraft for each F-22 lost in combat. However, with such a small fleet, each aircraft becomes increasingly valuable. And in some operations, the loss of even one aircraft could turn into a public relations or strategic victory for an adversary — even if that enemy cannot defeat U.S. forces outright.

We don’t need to accept this situation as our future. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, argues the value of "payloads over platforms." Given the time and cost issues of developing platforms like aircraft and ships we should instead focus our innovation efforts on the equipment they carry like weapons, sensors, and communication gear. Admiral Greenert makes a valid case, but what if the process used for aircraft design, production, and fielding could provide us similar flexibility and innovation?

Taking an approach of process over platforms could maintain U.S. advantage by building unmanned aircraft using short development cycles and accelerated production schedules that would lower both the overall cost of the program and the cost of building each individual aircraft. A fleet of such aircraft could be developed and produced adaptively, changing and growing to address threats as they emerge. A vision for this approach involves using advanced manufacturing technologies, including 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) and integrated robotic assembly, to rapidly produce unmanned aircraft systems. Making that vision a reality will mean using digital technology — data files for the production of aircraft components, software-driven assembly using robotic builders, and computerized remote piloting — to generate a paradigm shift in the development of combat aircraft. The ability to produce unmanned aircraft more quickly and add new capabilities rapidly will unleash the potential of these systems.

3-D printing was formerly a technology reserved for building prototypes and models, like machine tools or topographic models; but recent advances, including the ability to produce higher-quality products using a variety of materials, are opening entirely new frontiers in rapid design and production. The technology has the potential to reduce the amount of time and money that go into producing new aircraft. All defense contractors that build U.S. military aircraft currently use 3-D printing to a modest extent, but a significant expansion of these efforts could see production move from parts to entire systems.

Robotic assembly is neither new nor unique to manufacturing. Car companies like Toyota and General Motors have extensively used robotic assembly for flexible manufacturing for years. Using this type of automated assembly to build planes would mean they could be finished in weeks or months — not years. In a crisis, robotic assembly would also allow contractors to build more aircraft in a hurry: instead of training highly skilled workers to man additional shifts or facilities, an automated assembly line could operate around the clock when needed with reduced manpower.

Unmanned aircraft have proven to be a game changer in recent military operations because they can stay in the air longer than human-piloted aircraft and cost far less to use. Newer generations of unmanned aircraft will be able to fly further, take off from aircraft carriers, and fight alongside F-22s and F-35s. And they’ll be able to fly themselves so effectively that human operators can be trained faster and potentially fly multiple aircraft simultaneously.

Using automated production lines to build unmanned aircraft would allow defense contractors to move new aircraft models from development to production to operation faster and more cheaply than is possible today. That would allow us to experiment with a variety of unmanned aircraft, from a model that specializes in aerial combat to, say, a model focused on suppression of enemy air defenses — even though some wouldn’t make it to large-scale production. Rather than trying to predict combat needs 50 years in the future, planners would focus on near-term, clearer needs. We would build aircraft that last just 5 or 7 years, not 40 or even 70, and the military could update new models quickly, with improvements in communications or electronic warfare.  In times of peace, that would keep potential adversaries guessing about what the Pentagon was actually moving into wide-scale production. During times of war, we could take the best prototypes and build whole fleets faster and cheaper than could be done today.

The current acquisition process is optimized for 20th-century threats, and therefore is not suited for the rapid pace of technological change that we now face. Digital, adaptable, and automated production can take advantage of rapid change, and would force adversaries to try to be more innovative and fast-paced, an inherently cost-imposing strategy. That would be more valuable than any one-weapon system.

Unmanned combat aircraft and advanced 3-D printing haven’t fully arrived, but they’re not as far away as many people think.  More importantly, experimenting with these technologies could significantly change the national security dynamic. Now is the time to change the game — if we don’t, someone else will.

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