Category Archives: Future Tech

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Drones and the Human-War Relationship

Robots fascinate humans. They abound in movies: Star Wars, the Terminator, the Matrix. They are a foil for the human condition. In rosy predictions they are like Star Trek’s Data, “perfect” in strength and intellect yet void of emotion. In dystopian futures, killer robots are poetic justice. Created by humanity, robots attempt to annihilate their creators. If told killer robots exist in the U.S. arsenal, most Americans would probably think of “drones.” The name sounds robotic; it implies automaton behavior. Drones lack an onboard crew, and just like robots, drones fascinate Americans. In one important way, however, drones are not robots: they are flown by humans; they are just flown by remote control, but this creates a problem all of its own.

The Armed Forces are not even sure how to deal with drone pilots. The pilots play a pivotal role in combat operations. They make life or death decisions. They press the button to fire missiles. They probably engage in more “lethal actions” than other air units at present. Nevertheless, most fellow service members and the public at large do not think drone pilots hold “combat” jobs. Our system cannot square the responsibilities these service members have with the lack of surrounding danger.

The presence of danger has always been a defining characteristic of war and particularly in the way civilians see the armed forces. While Americans generally no longer glorify the taking of spoils, we do glorify success in the face of adversity and particularly danger. American society regularly “thanks” service members with things like recognition at sporting events and military discounts. These types of recognition purposely avoid mention of the policies those being thanked implement: “Support the Troops, whether you support the war or not.” But that approach only works if service members are seen to represent honorable values like service and sacrifice. Take away the danger and something of those values seems to disappear too.

130424-F-NL936-999.JPGOf course, some soldiers have always been relatively safe, performing jobs in the rear areas. Most civilians do not see past the uniform, but service members know who is actually at the front (though ironically the insurgencies of the past 40 years have eroded the difference). For those actually pulling the trigger, danger was always at least reciprocal if not near. While an artilleryman might not have been within rifle range of the enemy, he was in range of the enemy’s artillery.  Even ballistic missile crews in the United States were held at risk by their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War.

Drone pilots seem different because there is no reciprocity, but even that does not quite make drone pilots unique. The U.S. government has long looked to reduce danger to service members. Drones are only the latest idea. As the old Army saying goes “Why send a man if you can send a bullet?” The Navy has fully embraced this idea. The ships that launch manned aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles (a true killer robot) from the Mediterranean are in no more danger today than if they were training off the coast of California or Virginia. The closest most shipboard sailors have come to fighting in the last 10 years is pressing a button and then rushing to the TV in hopes that CNN will cover the resulting explosions. The Navy still uses the Iranian mine-laying operations in the late 1980s to justify for “imminent danger” pay for crews. If the Navy has not faced the same challenges as the drone community it is principally because distance from American shores obscures what is going on. A similar lack of reciprocity exists for most air and even some ground forces, both masked by distance. Indeed, this lack of reciprocity in many aspects of warfare is inherent to the asymmetric wars in which the United States has engaged.

Wars of the future may ameliorate this problem in some situations but will likely exacerbate in most. As the United States again faces the potential of great power conflict, the likelihood it will face an adversary with advanced air, land, and sear forces greatly increases. Nonetheless, a key lesson of the past decades has been that those who fight the United States on its own terms lose. This situation is likely to remain unchanged for several decades. Thus even great power competitors will seek to field forces that challenge American forces asymmetrically which made lead to situations lacking reciprocity even as the United States continues to develop technology to further protect its service members from danger.

Drones illuminate a problem which has already existed and will only grow in the future: In a society that professes not to value military spoils, how does the relationship with the armed forces change as service members become increasingly removed from danger?

Long-range weapons like artillery, naval gunfire, or close air support in a combined arms environment may suggest an answer. The Marine Corps has best developed this idea. Every Marine who is not primarily a rifleman understands his or her purpose is to support rifleman. For the naval gunnery liaison officer, his or her job directing the shore bombardment in support of forces ashore becomes more important because that officer operates from the relative safety of the ship but his or her actions mean life or death for forces ashore. At their best, these units draw their identity from the support and protection they provide to those in the greatest danger, and those in danger would never deny the importance of that support when well executed.

Without a doubt, danger will never disappear, nor should we reduce efforts to lessen it, but we must begin to think about a how the armed forces will relate to society as fewer service members go in harm’s way. While drones may not actually be robots, in one at least one way their arrival seems to have played a similar role: Drones have highlighted an all too human problem about how people relate to war.

Erik Sand is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy and a graduate of Harvard University. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

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A New Kind of Drone War: UCAV vs UCLASS

This article was originally posted by with our partners at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI’s) The Strategist.

The Australian government recently approved the acquisition of a fleet of US Navy Triton surveillance drones to patrol our oceans. Australia has mostly used Israeli drones to date, such as the Herons in Afghanistan. So as we dip our toes into the American UAV market, it’s worth taking note of a recent development that might be threatening US primacy in this area.

While the Predator and Reaper laid the groundwork for the use of armed drones in warfare, a question remains about the survivability of the technology against modern air defences. Developing a stealthy long-range drone with a decent weapons payload that could go beyond missions in Yemen and Pakistan appeared to be the next order of business for the US, especially in the future Asia-Pacific theatre. Projects like the demonstrator X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) have shown promise in achieving those missions. But for now the US Navy has decided to go for an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system that won’t have the stealth or payload to penetrate air defences.

The UCLASS system will be designed to provide Navy carriers with long-range surveillance and strike capabilities to target terrorists in much the same way as the Air Force’s drones are currently doing from bases around the world. The capacity to carry out those missions without relying on foreign bases is driving this decision, along with lower costs. But the UCLASS system will only operate over states that have limited air defences (because of UCLASS vulnerability) or have provided the US permission to conduct strikes. Al-Qaeda affiliates are on the rise in Syria, where the Assad regime is both hostile toward the US and has the capability to deny drones. This raises the question of how many states will fit this category.

Consequently, at a program cost of US$3.7 billion, the UCLASS won’t provide the degree of innovation the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (PDF) advocated. This would be money better spent on more research and development (R&D) into a UCAV, which could potentially have greater impact in the future strategic environment. Moreover, the UCLASS would be mostly redundant in Asia, the most strategically important future region for the US. UCAVs, on the other hand, could have an impact in, for example, a future conflict with China. According to Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a UCAV with a range of 2,000kms, broadband stealth, a payload to rival the manned F-35C combat aircraft, and a capacity for aerial refuelling, is achievable. Developing a UCAV that’s survivable is no mean feat, but the US has a good start in terms of support systems and personnel established over the past few decades.

UCAVs would be capable of rapid deployment from carriers, which could stay out of the range of anti-access threats. A persistent surveillance capability that could also strike vital command and control and air defence sites if required could open the way for follow-on operations by manned aircraft. A UCAV would form a valuable part of the US deep strike suite, a key feature of AirSea Battle (PDF). And while losing platforms is never good, drastically reducing risk to personnel is a major incentive, especially early on in a conflict.

China’s an active player in drone development, and the PLA’s R&D investments are another good reason for the US to think carefully about holding off on UCAV development. China’s Sharp Sword UCAV, which was flight-tested in 2013, shows the PLA’s commitment to creating a mix of manned and unmanned combat aircraft. The growing Chinese defence budget (with a reported increase of a 12% this year) could lead to rapid advances in this area.

Funding the UCAV is the big question considering the cuts to the US defence budget; its price-tag would be heftier than the UCLASS. Proponents of the UCAV such as CSBA and the Center for New American Security (CNAS) (PDF), argue that the money could come from decommissioning two (or possibly more) carrier groups. Budget pressures have already seen cuts and deferrals to the carrier force and it would be a big step to cut two more. What’s important in these perspectives, however, is that the UCAV’s stand-off capacity and flexibility could make each carrier more effective. As Michael O’Hanlon pointed out on The Strategist last month, capability should be the metric of adequacy, not dollars or hull numbers.

The UCLASS could be redundant by the time it enters service in 2020, even in the targeted killing missions it’s designed to carry-out. A UCAV, on the other hand, would stretch the envelope in relation to advanced technologies, which would contribute to sustaining US strategic advantage. It would enhance a carrier group’s capability to respond to anti-access threats and it could also be versatile enough to respond to terror threats globally. Unmanned systems show no signs of fading into the background, and even in a tight fiscal environment represent a potentially high payoff for R&D funds.

Rosalyn Turner is an intern at ASPI.

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Time to Wake Up: Snowden’s Cost

Regardless of how you feel about Edward Snowden’s domestic surveillance program revelations, it’s time to get real about the cost we are paying for Snowden’s leaks about America’s signals intelligence programs. In a conversation a few months ago with a very senior former US intelligence official, I was struck by their apocalyptic assessment of the damage Snowden’s leaks had caused America’s intelligence capabilities. While he naturally considered the domestic concerns overblown, he was even more upset at Snowden undoing of decades of groundbreaking American work securing our own communications and spying on foreign governments.

Success in signals intelligence relies almost entirely on the opponent not knowing where and how he is being spied upon. As soon as your methods are discovered, your opponent can evade your espionage or, even worse, spoof you with false intelligence. Be detailing the methods that the US uses to spy on other countries, Snowden’s revelations immediately and directly limited the NSA’s capabilities. We are just now beginning to see the fruit of that.

The Crimean crisis has revealed tremendous gaps in American SIGINT and comms against the very country in which Snowden happened to take asylum. Just over a year after Snowden’s releases, it is no coincidence. Now, I don’t mean to give Snowden all the credit – the Russians have maintained aggressive measures against American SIGINT since at least the mid 2000s. But it is not clear that, before the Snowden revelations, they were certain how effective their countermeasures were. By laying bare the sorts of measures the NSA has honed to break open world communications, Snowden has given the Russian military and IC exactly what it needs to craft communications in the American blindspot. Thus, the American intelligence community was blindsided by the Crimean invasion – while they observed the Russian military buildup, the lack of an increase in comms traffic lulled them into a false sense of optimism. Thanks to Snowden, the Russians could be confident that their countermeasures would be effective.

There is another piece of this puzzle that has been troubling me; Over the past year, there have been a number of alarming communications security breeches that have embarrassed US, EU, and Ukrainian officials in ways very convenient for the ongoing Russian information war. Now, I can’t speak to the sources of the EU and Ukrainian leaks (I wouldn’t want to deprive some poor GRU operative his due!), but I was very alarmed by the US breech. Senior (and even not-so-senior) US officials working in the Former Soviet Union are subject to very strict regulations around communications. Now, it’s possible of course that Victoria Nuland and Amb. Pyatt made some error. But this isn’t the first rodeo for either of them: Nuland is the former ambassador to NATO, and Amb. Pyatt is a career FSO with decades of experience working in sensitive areas, including at the IAEA. We know that Nuland was surprised by the leak, calling it “pretty impressive tradecraft.”

There are two likely scenarios of how these communication leaks happened; both of them alarming. The first possibility is that the conversation was had in the clear on an embassy line. Intercepting embassy communications still involves a level of tradecraft above merely intercepting something over Ukraine’s telecoms network, and embassy comms being intercepted indicates a dire but not surprising familiarity with our diplomatic communications system. Nonetheless, such a breech would indicate that our diplomats had not necessarily followed protocol. The more alarming possibility is that the secure line itself was compromised. Prior to Snowden, such a breach was nigh unthinkable. But, prior to his time at the NSA, Snowden worked for the CIA…securing their communications from foreign postings. Now, I’m not suggesting that Snowden is sitting in Lubyanka Square hacking American comms. But it should scare the hell out of us that someone so intimately involved in securing American communications in addition to building American SIGINT capacities now relies on the generosity of his Russian hosts for his breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

It is possible that Snowden could compromise American intelligence in ways he is not even aware; was Snowden really clever enough to completely prevent the Russians from peeking into his document archive? Is he really smart enough to detect whether some of the security problems he might work on for his Russian clients might not actually be FSB tricks to get him to divulge how an American cryptographer might approach security? What frightens me is not the possibility that Snowden is maliciously working against the US. But the Russian intelligence community has access to people who are smarter than he is, are better hackers than him, and are world-class manipulators. Snowden’s naïveté has already harmed the US, but his hubris is positioned to do even more damage, and damage that we will not know the extent of until it is too late.

I realize that this line of analysis has a certain Ian Fleming-ish feel to it; a US cryptanalyst absconds to Russia, and a year later, American SIGINT begins to experience unusual failures and breeches. But that is the reality we are living in, and we need to wake up to it. The damage Snowden has done to America’s information security and intelligence capabilities is not hypothetical and hypothesized. It is real, it is urgent, it is extensive, and it is just starting.

Jon is a 2013 Healy Scholar, a MPhil in International Relations candidate at University of Oxford, and a Research Assistant at Georgetown University. 

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Drones, Ethics, and The Indispensable Pilot

The on-going conversation about the ethics of drones (or of remotely piloted aircraft[1]) is quickly becoming saturated. The ubiquity of the United States’ remotely piloted aircraft program has arisen so suddenly that ethicists have struggled just to keep up. The last decade, though, has provided sufficient time for thinkers to grapple with the difficult questions involved in killing from thousands of miles away.

In a field of study as fertile as this one, cultivation is paramount, and distinctions are indispensable. Professor Gregory Johnson of Princeton offers a helpful lens through which to survey the landscape. Each argument about drone ethics is concerned with one of three things: The morality, legality, or wisdom of drone use.[2]

Arguments about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of drones typically make value judgments on drones based upon their efficacy.[3] One common example argues that, because of the emotional response drone strikes elicit in the targets’ family and friends, drone strikes may create more terrorists than they kill.

Legal considerations take a step back from the question of efficacy. These ask whether drone policies conform to standing domestic and international legal norms. These questions are not easily answered for two reasons. First, some argue that remote systems have changed the nature of war, requiring changes to the legal norms.[4] Second, the U.S. government is not forthcoming with details on its drone programs.[5]

The moral question takes a further step back even from the law. It asks, regardless of the law, whether drones are right or wrong–morally good, or morally bad. A great deal has been written on broad questions of drone morality, and sufficient summaries of it already exist in print.[6]

If there is a void in the literature, I think it is centered on the frequent failure to include the drone operator in the ethical analysis. That is, most ethicists who address the question of “unmanned” aircraft tend to draw a border around the area of operations (AOR) and consider in their analysis everything in it–enemy combatants, civilians, air power, special operations forces (SOF), tribal leaders, hellfire missiles, etc. They are also willing to take one giant step outside the AOR to include Washington–lawmakers, The Executive, military leaders, etc. Most analyses of the ethics of drones, then, include everyone involved except the operator.[7] This is problematic for a number of reasons discussed below.

Bradley Strawser, for example, argues in favor of remote weapons from a premise that leaders ought to reduce risk to their forces wherever possible. He therefore hangs his argument on the claim that drone pilots are not “present in the primary theater of combat.”[8] While this statement is technically correct, it is misleading. The pilot, while not collocated with the aircraft, plays a crucial role in the ethical analysis.

Sarah Kreps and John Kaag argue that the U.S.’s capability to wage war without risk, may make the decision to go to war too easy. Therefore, any decision to go to war under such circumstances may be unjust.[9] This view is contingent upon a war without risk, which fails to consider the operator, and the ground unit the operator supports.

Paul Kahn goes so far as to call remote warfare “riskless.” But suggesting that remote war is riskless supposes that at least one side in the conflict employes no people at all. Where there are people conducting combat operations, there is risk. Contrary to Kahn’s position, drones are controlled by people, in support of people, and thus, war (as we know it) is not riskless.

The common presupposition throughout these arguments, namely that remote war does not involve people in an ethically meaningful way, is detrimental to a fruitful discussion of the ethics of remote warfare for three reasons.

First, the world has not yet seen, and it may never see, a drone-only war. What that means is that even though the drone operator may face no risk to him or herself, the supported unit on the ground faces mortal risk.[10] The suggestion, then, that a remote warfare capability produces war without risk is empirically untenable.

Second, there exist in this world risks that are non-physical. Cases of psychological distress (both in the military and outside it) abound, and the case has been made in other fields that psychological wounds are as real as physical ones.[11] There have already been a small number of documented post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases among drone operators.[12] Though the number of cases may be small, consider what is being asked of these individuals. Unlike their counterparts, RPA crews are asked to take life for reasons other than self defense. It is possible, and I think plausible, to suggest that killing an enemy, in such a way that one cannot ground the justification of one’s actions in self-defense, may carry long-term, and latent, psychological implications. The psychological risk to drone operators is, then, present but indeterminate.

Finally, there is the often-neglected point that a government which chooses to conduct remote warfare from home changes the status of its domestic military bases. That government effectively re-draws the battlespace such that it includes the drone operators within its borders. RPA bases within the Continental United States (CONUS) become military targets that carry tremendous operational and tactical significance, and are thereby likely targets.

There is a fine point to be made here about the validity of military targets. According to international norms, any violent action carried out by a terror network is illegal. So what would be a valid military target for a state in wartime is still an illegal target for al Qaeda. Technically, then, a U.S. drone base cannot be called a valid military target for a terrorist organization, but the point here about risk is maintained if we consider such bases attractive targets. Because the following claims are applicable beyond current overseas contingency operations against terror networks, the remaining discussion will assume the validity of U.S. drone bases as targets.[13]

The just war tradition, and derivatively the international laws of war, recognize that collateral damage is acceptable as long as that damage does not exceed the military value of the target.[14] The impact of this fact on domestically operated drones is undeniable.

Suppose an F-15E[15] pilot is targeted by the enemy while she sleeps on a U.S. base in Afghanistan. The collateral damage will undoubtedly include other military members. Now suppose a drone operator is targeted while she sleeps in her home near a drone base in the U.S.. In this scenario, the collateral damage may include her spouse and children. If it can be argued that such a target’s military value exceeds the significance of the collateral damage (and given the success of the U.S. drone program, perhaps it can) then killing her, knowing that her family may also die, becomes legally permissible.[16] Nations with the ability to wage war from within their own domestic boundaries, then, ought to consider the consequences of doing so.[17]

There will be two responses to these claims. First, someone will object that the psychological effects on the drone operator are overstated. Suppose this objection is granted, for the moment. The world of remote warfare, though, is a dynamic one, and one must consider the relationship between technology and distance. The earths sphere creates a boundary to the physical distance from which one person can kill another person. If pilots are in the United States, and targets are in Pakistan, then the geometric boundary has already been reached.

It cannot be the case, now that physical distance has reached a maximum, that technology will cease to develop. Technology will continue to develop, and with that development, physical distance will not increase; but information transmission rates will. The U.S. Air Force is already pursuing high definition cameras,[18] wide area motion imagery sensors,[19] and increased bandwidth to transmit all this new data.[20]

If technology has driven the shooter (the drone pilot, in this case) as far from the weapons effects as Earths geometry allows, then future technological developments will not increase physical distance, but they will increase video quality, time on station and sensor capability. Now that physical distance has reached a boundary, future technological developments will exceed previously established limits. That is, the psychological distance between killers and those they kill will decrease.[21] 

The future of drone operations will see a resurgence of elements from the old wars. Crews will look in a mans face, seeing his eyes and his fearthe killer must shoot at a person and kill a specific individual.[22] Any claim that RPA pilots are not shooting at people, but only at pixels will become obsolete. The command, dont fire until you see the whites of their eyesmay soon become as meaningful in drone operations as it was at Breeds Hill in 1775.[23]

As this technology improves, the RPA pilots will see a target, not as mere pixels, but as a human, as a person, as a husband and father, as one who was alive, but is now dead. Increased psychological effects are inevitable.

A second objection will claim that, although RPA bases may make attractive targets, the global terror networks with whom the U.S. is currently engaged lack the capability to strike such targets. But this objection also views a dynamic world as though it were static. Even if the current capabilities of our enemies are knowable today, we cannot know what they will be tomorrow. Likewise, we cannot know where the next war will be, nor the capabilities of the next enemy. We have learned in this young century that strikes against the continental United States are still possible.

The question of whether drones are, or can be, ethical is far too big a question to be tackled in this brief essay. What we can know for certain, though, is that any serious discussion of the question must include the RPA pilot in its ethical analysis. Wars change. Enemies change. Tactics change. It would seem, though, that remotely piloted weapons will remain for the foreseeable future.

Joe Chapa is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He served as a pilot and instructor pilot in Oklahoma, Nevada and Missouri, and completed two deployments to Afghanistan and Europe. He earned a B.A in Philosophy from Boston University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Philosophy from Boston College (anticipated 2014). The views expressed here are of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force, the DoD or the U.S. government.

[1] Throughout this essay, I will use the terms ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ and ‘drone’ synonymously. With these terms I am referring to U.S. aircraft which have a human pilot not collocated with the aircraft, which are capable of releasing kinetic ordnance.

[2] This distinction comes from a Rev. Michael J. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture panel discussion held at The College of The Holy Cross. Released Mar 13, 2013. https://itunes.apple.com/us/institution/college-of-the-holy-cross/id637884273. (Accessed February 25, 2014).

[3] The following contain arguments on the wisdom of drones. Audrey Kurth-Cronin, “Why Drones Fail:When Tactics Drive Strategy,”Foreign Affairs,July/August 2013; Patterson, Eric & teresa Casale, “Targeting Terror: The Ethical and Practical Implications of Targeted Killing,”International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence”18:4, 21 Aug 2006; and Jeff McMahan, “Preface” in Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military, Bradley Strawser, ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] For example, Mark Bowden, “The Killing Machines,” The Atlantic (8/16/13): 3. Others disagree. See Matthew W. Hillgarth, “Just War Theory and Remote Military Technology: A Primer,” in Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military, Bradley Strawser, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 27.

[5] Rosa Brooks, “The War Professor,” Foreign Policy, (May 23, 2013): 7.

[6] For an excellent overview of the on-going discussion of drone ethics, see Bradley Strawsers chapter Introduction: The Moral Landscape of Unmanned Weaponsin his edited book Killing By Remote Control (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 3-24.

[7] This point highlights the merits of the Air Force’s term ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ (RPA). The aircraft are not unmanned. Etymologically, the term “unmanned” most nearly means “autonomous.”  While there are significant ethical questions surrounding autonomous killing machines, they are distinct from the questions of remotely piloted killing machines. It is only because the popular term “drone” is so pervasive that I have decided to use both terms interchangeably throughout this essay.

[8] Bradley Strawser, “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles,” Journal of Military Ethics 9, no. 4 (16 Dec 2010): 356.

[9] Though I do not have the space to develop it fully, this argument is well-grounded in the just war tradition, and is one of the stronger arguments against a military use of remote warfare technology.

[10] Since September eleventh, 2011, U.S. “drone strikes” have been executed under the Authorizatino for The Military Use of Force, signed by Congress in 2001. From a legal perspective, then, all drone strikes, even those outside Iraq and Afghanistan have been against targets who pose an imminnent threat to the United States. Thus, even any reported “targeted killings” in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, or elsewhere, were conducted in self-defense, and therefore involved risk.

[11] By way of example, consider cases of hate speech, bullying and ‘torture lite’ in Rae Langton, “Beyond Belief: Pragmatics in Hate Speech and Pornography,” in Speech & Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech, ed. Ishani Maitra and Mary Kate McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, May, 2012), 76-77.; Isbani Maitra, “Subordinating Speech,” in Speech & Harcm: Controversies Over Free Speech, ed. Ishani Maitra and Mary Kate McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, May, 2012), 96.; Jessica Wolfendale, “The Myth of ‘Torture Lite’,” Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs (2009), 50.

[12] James Dao, “Drone Pilots Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do,” New York Times, (February 22, 2013).

[13] The question of whether organizations like al Qaeda are to be treated as enemy combatants (as though they were equivalent to states) or criminals remains open. For more on the distinction between combatants and criminals, see Michael L. Gross, “Assassination and Targeted Killing: Law Enforcement, Execution or Self-Defense?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 23, no. 3, (2006): 323-335.)

[14] Avery Plaw, Counting the Dead: The Proportionality of Predation in Pakistan,Bradley Strawser, ed. in Killing by Remote Control (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 135.

[15] A traditionally manned U.S. Air Force asset capable of delivering kinetic ordnance.

[16] This statement is only true of enemy states. As discussed above, all terror network targets are illegal targets.

[17] I have developed this argument more fully in “The Ethics of Remotely Piloted Aircraft” Air and Space Power Journal, Spanish Edition, vol. 25, no. 4, (2013): 23-33.

[18] Exhibit R-2, RDT&E Budget Item Justification, MQ-9 Development and Fielding, February 2012, (page 1). (http://www.dtic.mil/descriptivesum/Y2013/AirForce/stamped/0205219F_7_PB_2013.pdf) accessed 30 July 2013.

[19] Lance Menthe, Amado Cordova, Carl Rhodes, Rachel Costello, and Jeffrey Sullivan, The Future of Air Force Motion Imagery Exploitation Lessons from the Commercial World, Rand Project Air Force, (page iii). (http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2012/RAND_TR1133.pdf) accessed 30 July 2013.

[20] Grace V. Jean, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fuel Demand for Satellite BandwidthNational Defense Magazine,  July 2011. (http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2011/July/Pages/RemotelyPilotedAircraftFuelsDemandforSatelliteBandwidth.aspx) accessed 30 July 2013.

[21] Ibid, 97-98.

[22] Ibid, 119.

[23] George E. Ellis, Battle of Bunkers Hill, (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1895), 70.

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‘Drones’ for Peace

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), commonly referred to as ‘drones’, have been the subject of much discussion surrounding potential operations in Syria, primarily in the context of enforcing a ‘no-fly’ zone or enforcement role similar to their role in Libya and modeled after operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  This paper examines the prospects of the use of RPAs in Syria, finding RPAs as currently operated today counterproductive to potential political aims in Syria in an enforcement capacity.  Smaller RPAs, operating in a number of other roles, could however play a critical role in overcoming the humanitarian conflict in Syria, from monitoring key sites designated by the International Community and allowed by the Syrian Government and opposition forces, to providing humanitarian aid, to overwatch of convoy movements to include the removal of chemical weapons.  The stigma of RPAs, given their use in other conflicts, must be overcome to allow them to be evaluated and used as a tool for monitoring and aid among other roles, not just as offensive weapons of war.

Following NATO operations in Libya, a number of analysts in the United States spoke of the prospect of applying the ‘Libya Model’ to Syria. In August of 2011, a Washington Post article on the Syria conflict began with the passage “[t]he success of Libya’s rebels in toppling their dictator is prompting calls within the Syrian opposition for armed rebellion and NATO intervention (Sly, 2011).”  That same day, the New York Times ran an article outlining the prospects of such a model being applied elsewhere, noting President Obama’s March 2011 speech outlining principles for humanitarian intervention. In February 2012, Anne Marie Slaughter outlined a strategy for intervention consisting of the creation of ‘no-kill zones’ near the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders, the arming of opposition forces to create the zone, and for Turkey and Arab allies to enforce the zones “through the use of remotely piloted helicopters, either for delivery of cargo and weapons — as America has used them in Afghanistan — or to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill zones (Slaughter, 2012).”

Today, as problems with enforcement of the chemical weapons agreement have bogged down and as the Obama Administration has signaled that the al Nusra Front appears increasingly to be a direct threat to the U.S. (Rohde, 2014), speculation is rising once more that a military option may be back on the table for Syria.  While any military option would be fraught with a number of obstacles to planning, execution, and justification, the semi-regular talk of RPAs as a key instrument in many of these options is especially problematic.  This stems in part from a limited popular understanding of the roles and capabilities of RPAs, and also a lack of imagination by policymakers for other ways in which RPAs could be a positive good, both for warzones like Syria and for other humanitarian crises globally.  A move away from the mythology of the ‘drone’ and toward an appreciation for the spectrum of potential roles unique to RPAs over manned aircraft is vital to understanding how the ‘drone’ will likely play a far greater role as an instrument in peacetime.

Understanding Classes of RPAs

Conflation of the capabilities of strategic RPAs and the proliferation of tactical RPAs clouds RPA discussion.  Just as strategic bombers such as the B-2 represent only one class of aircraft, Predator and Reaper represent only one limited application of RPAs.  Understanding the array of RPAs and differentiating capabilities and limitations of systems is necessary to overcome the stigma of the RPA as a tool of war or assassination, and appreciating its potential uses in humanitarian crises. I divide RPAs as platforms between tactical and strategic RPAs based on their connectivity to their operator, which differentiates those that are reliant on global communications and intelligence infrastructure and are capable of long range, extended duration operations, and those that are more simple locally controlled line-of-sight RPAs.[1]

The strategic requirements and organizational capacity of states and organizations dictate which types of RPAs they will pursue, while the rate and nature of diffusion can be predicted by applying Michael Horowitz’s Adoption-Capacity Theory (Horowitz, 2011).  This theory projects the rate of diffusion of a military innovation by evaluating its costs to implement versus its organizational capacity to adopt the change.  Costs are a factor of the dual-use civilian-military applications of the innovation and the per-unit cost of the asset.  Organizational capacity, meanwhile, is a function of the organization’s age, willingness to experiment, and critical task focus.  The division of RPAs into two categories as previously defined allows us to evaluate both the diffusion of RPA platforms, as well as the potential uses of those platforms given the array of potential users.

Tactical RPAs are likely to rapidly diffuse and see the most independent innovation in terms of their potential usage due to their low cost and the potential for numerous applications beyond the military sphere.  In the U.S., a strong community of RPA enthusiasts already exists that is experimenting with a variety of commercial, recreational, and government applications for smaller RPAs.  Amazon.com received attention earlier this year for their 30-minute RPA delivery plan,[2] but other initiatives are at work to allow citizens to use RPAs to monitor crops, take overhead images for commercial purposes, and to assist in search and rescue for as low as $740 for a single system (Kelly, 2014).  Such small RPAs already play a role in assisting in Search and Rescue missions providing both search and improved communications capability in isolated or hazardous environments (such as fires), and for delivery of small cargo such as heart defibrillators and medicine among other positive uses for such RPAs (Newman, 2013).

Figure 1: Reaper Manning[3]

Picture 1

Strategic RPAs require higher costs both to procure and to operate, which applies both to the unit and to the larger global intelligence and communications system involved in operating the asset.   This results in higher operational costs relative to those of similar piloted airframes if a manned alternative exists.  In examining relative costs, Table 1 shows the problem with conflating the costs of RPAs purchased online with the capabilities of strategic RPAs.  The Global Hawk and U-2 represent the closest to a direct comparison of capabilities,[4] while Table 1 shows the flight-hour cost are roughly comparable.  Given the reachback and precision engagement requirements, the military-only applications of these airframes, and the resulting high per-unit costs these RPAs will be very slow to diffuse and innovation within the class of RPAs will likely be slow and incremental.

Table 1: U-2/RQ-4 Cost Comparison

  Procurement Cost Flight-Hour Cost
U-2 Classified/no longer in production $31,000[5]
Global Hawk (2010) $46.4-80 million $40,600[6]
Global Hawk (2013) $46.4-80 million $18,900

Due to their high costs and the significant infrastructure requirements required to build and operate strategic RPAs, innovation occurs with these RPAs slowly and deliberately, with new innovations regularly referred to as ‘using only proven technology.’[7] This trend can be seen within the U.S. RPA force.  Figure 2 shows the growth of U.S. RPAs, to include target drones, tactical, and strategic reconnaissance RPAs since the 1930s.  Tactical RPAs have adopted across a wider variety of missions and from multiple platforms, as their lower cost and limited operational capacity requirements has enabled both private sector and tactical operations innovations to allow a number of platforms to supplement existing operations.  Strategic RPAs, on the other hand, have slowly evolved from wither the Predator or Reaper families, with the RQ-170 representing likely the baseline of future RPAs merged with the advancing Predator family under the Avenger.

Figure 2: U.S. Military RPA Development

Picture 2

Given this classification of RPAs we are better positioned to evaluate the prospects for RPAs in both peacetime environments and in humanitarian crisis situations.  Traditionally, RPAs in general are categorized as being ideally suited for missions that are ‘dull, dirty, or dangerous.’[8]  However, given the high cost of strategic RPAs, low cost of tactical RPAs, and the capabilities and vulnerability associated with each class of RPA, strategic RPAs are best suited for those missions which can be categorized as ‘dull,’ with tactical RPAs better suited for those which are ‘dirty’ or ‘dangerous.’  ‘Dull’ missions require the lack of a threat and are enhanced by the persistent nature associated with the dwell time of strategic RPAs.  The high cost of strategic RPAs precludes them in many cases from being used in dangerous environments unless deemed absolutely necessary given the risk of loss.  Tactical RPAs, however, are relatively expendable given their low per-unit cost, while in many cases the shorter dwell times associated with these aircraft as well as the shorter range limited by line-of-sight control makes them less optimal for ‘dull’ missions.  They can, however, be fielded by a wide range of actors who are free to innovate a wider variety of uses for the airframes.

Strategic RPAs as Peace Enforcers versus Tactical RPAs as Peace Keepers

Most discussion of RPAs in Syria see RPAs employed in a ‘Peace Enforcement’ mission.  Peace Enforcement is defined by U.S. military doctrine as “[a]pplication of military force, or the threat of its use, normally pursuant to international authorization, to compel compliance with resolutions or sanctions designed to maintain or restore peace and order (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012, p. I8).“  This is different from ‘Peacekeeping,’ which U.S. doctrine defines as operations “undertaken with the consent of all major parties to a dispute, designed to monitor and facilitate implementation of an agreement (cease fire, truce, or other such agreement) and support diplomatic efforts to reach a long-term political settlement (Ibid).”

The RPA appears advantageous as it is seen by some as less of a violation of sovereignty than manned aircraft or a ground force.  This is likely due to perceptions of U.S. operations where the U.S. has been accused of violating sovereignty with no recourse or justification.[9]  The realities of RPAs are more complicated however, and the likelihood of tacit Pakistani approval of operations as outlined by David Ignatius in 2008 (Ignatius, 2008) and more recently by the International Crisis Group (Drones: Myths And Reality In Pakistan, 2013) undercuts the likelihood of sovereignty actually being violated and which should in turn serve as a warning to future operations.  If Turkey were concerned that manned flights would constitute a violation of Syrian territory, there should be no reason to believe that Syria would be less justified based on a similar violation by an RPA.

The low speeds, lack of defenses, and mission requirements of extended loiter over a fixed area as Predator and Reaper are generally employed would make them easy targets for a state with an active air defense system and the will to employ it.  Syria maintains a significant, though likely ill-maintained Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) capable of engaging a variety of targets.  The June 2012 shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4 which violated Syrian airspace briefly illustrates Syria’s general willingness to shoot down aircraft in defense of its territory (Times of Israel Staff, 2012). Slaughter attempted to reframe this by saying all forms of intervention must be purely defensive, “only to stop attacks by the Syrian military or to clear out government forces that dare to attack the no-kill zones (Slaughter, 2012).”  However, it is hard to see how any military operation designed to limit the Syrian government’s sovereignty anywhere within Syrian territory would be viewed by Syria, Russia, China, or Iran as anything but an offensive move.  RPAs, seeking to enforce a no-kill zone from inside Syrian airspace against the will of the Syrian government would find themselves highly vulnerable to Syria’s air defense network, necessitating a large-scale air campaign to destroy most of the Syrian Air Force before RPA operations could commence.  Due to the likely lack of UN approval for an operation, the threat posed by the Syrian IADS system and the necessity to secure airspace in advance of operations, and the implications of the loss of even a few strategic RPAs in Syria, RPAs as a tool for enforcement of either a no-fly or no-kill zone in Syria should be viewed as a non-starter.

An incremental approach aimed at limited purely humanitarian aims should be the objective for planners interested in stopping the humanitarian crisis as modest interim agreements to limit fighting, protect civilians, and achieve other objectives such as eliminating chemical weapons appear to be feasible near-term objectives.  In early 2014 a 72-hr truce was reached to evacuate civilians from the city of Homs, a limited ceasefire that was extended as peace talks faltered (Agence France-Presse, 2014).  Similar evacuations have been thwarted by violence in the surrounding areas, while the removal of chemical weapons from storage depots in Syria were similarly delayed by such threats in addition to accusations of stalling on the part of the regime.  In each of these cases, tactical RPAs similar to those used for search and rescue in the U.S. could have been used to supplement the operations in order to increase transparency of operations and assist in the delivery of vital humanitarian supplies of food, medicine, and other aid items to besieged communities and hard to access locations.

Here, the aforementioned distinction between peace enforcing operations and peace keeping operations is critical, and in a sense the vulnerabilities of RPAs that were a vice for strategic RPAs can be a virtue for tactical RPAs.  Unarmed RPAs could only be used with the consent of parties to the conflict and thus would need to be approved as part of a concept of operations with the approval for the intervention, be it removal of chemical weapons or humanitarian relief, and with it a reduced threat environment.  The primary goal of a mission like convoy support would be to increase transparency both of the relief operation and the emergence of threats to the operation, which in part should serve as a deterrent to the emergence of threats.  However, given the relatively low cost of tactical RPAs, were deterrence to fail resulting in RPAs being lost the economic cost would be relatively small while the likelihood that sensors aboard the RPA could identify the origin of the threat would in turn lead to greater clarity in assignment of blame for the attack and with it the potential to shape future negotiations to the violators detriment.  The small size of tactical RPA payloads, limited range, and local control of operations would also allow for increased transparency to parties to the conflict for inspections of payloads to ensure no contraband is shipped in violation of agreements.

For many of these operations, lessons can be learned from military applications of RPAs in conflicts like Iraq, but narrowly tailored to a neutral role.  In 2006, the U.S. Army developed Task Force ODIN as a specialty team to detect and neutralize threats to convoys in Iraq.  In its early years, this consisted primarily of coordinating ISR operations with convoys to secure route clearance, but over time evolved to a broader mission to identify and track insurgent networks to defeat cells before they could even emplace bombs (Glass, 2009).  While the latter mission would involve direct intervention to proactively eliminate threats as part of a military campaign, lessons learned from early operations to clear routes and monitor activities in the areas of convoy movements could be tailored to meet the needs of international teams performing missions in Syria.  For humanitarian relief, the lessons learned from search and rescue missions in the U.S. could provide a first step for developing concepts of operations to employ RPAs in those environments.

Figure 4: Sample simplified CONOP for humanitarian RPA operations

Picture 3 Picture 4

In the case of a future humanitarian operation to provide support for a besieged city like Homs, tactical RPAs could be used in the initial phases of the operation to provide overwatch in order to reduce violence.  A ceasefire limited to an area such as a stadium would allow peacekeeping forces to set up a base of operations, to include an RPA ground station and launch/recovery zone, sufficient to enable several orbits of RPAs with both electro-optical and infrared sensors.  These RPAs would allow for intelligence preparation of the operating environment to increase visibility of levels of destruction, identification of areas where people have taken shelter, and in addition could deter violence through increased visibility of ongoing operations.  The RPAs themselves could be vulnerable to man portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADs), but given the relative cost of the RPAs versus the information that could be gleamed from a shoot-down of an RPA by a MANPAD may justify the cost by both aiding to identify those who would violate a ceasefire agreement and by increasing visibility of the types of arms being brought into Syria and the levels of violence associated with the conflict.  Figure 4 shows what a sample CONOP might look like, with multiple RPA orbits over selected areas of the city to be evacuated with additional orbits providing route pre-clearance for convoys of vehicles moving displaced persons to the port city of Tartus.

Conclusion

Discussion of RPAs and the Syria conflict is heavily clouded by the images of Predator and Reaper as weapons of war, both by those who would like to see greater U.S. involvement in the conflict that may see them as a virtue, or by those who fear involvement and worry about escalation.  The limited image of ‘drones’ has become a hindrance to their effective employment in humanitarian crises, a stigma which must be overcome to allow for their effective use in crisis situations.  Smaller RPAs, flown by neutral operators, with the consent of parties to the conflict or impacted by the crisis, can play a major role in humanitarian relief, from search and rescue to increasing transparency.

One major challenge to this point has been the stigma of ‘drones’ combined with the expertise residing largely in the military community or with military and government contractors.  Many countries are uncomfortable with the U.S. flying ‘drones’ over their territory due to this stigma, even in crisis situations.    Non-government organizations may similarly be unwilling to use RPAs for fear of being associated with military equipment which might negatively impact their mission.  Understanding the nature and characteristics of the tool is vital to understanding their potential for both good and ill in humanitarian crises.  Overall, given the stakes involved in the humanitarian crisis and the demands of the international community to ‘do something,’ the potential of unarmed tactical RPAs to be a force for peace in Syria in cooperation with limited  international peacekeeping efforts appears to be a risk worth taking.

Michael P. Kreuzer is a PhD Candidate in International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a Graduate Student Associate at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University.  His forthcoming dissertation examines the military utility and likely patterns of diffusions for remotely piloted aircraft, and their impact on future international relations.  He is an Air Force veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and holds a BS in History from the United States Air Force Academy, an MPA from the University of Alaska Anchorage, and an MSI from American Military University. 

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[1] This terminology is problematic for some airpower scholars as the airpower notion of ‘Effects Based Operations” defines all platforms as fundamentally tactical which in turn can have strategic effects based on the exploitation of the mission, but for my basic purposes it suffices as stressing that some RPAs will be limited to a narrow radius for operations in an environment where their operators are vulnerable (tactical RPAs) vice those that are the focus of air campaigns through a global operating system (strategic RPAs).  The terminology here defines the character of the airframe vice the nature of the mission it performs.

[2] This claim is likely unrealistic and meant to garner headlines.  Although Amazon is reportedly also working to patent a system that can predict customer orders in advance, for a small RPA which flies at under 100 mph Amazon would have pre-position warehouses with most of their inventory on hand roughly every 30 miles or at least within 30 miles of every major market in order to make such a system a reality even before processing and loading.  At that point Amazon may as well allow in-person pickup which begins to look more like a catalog store.

[3] Figure derived from an unclassified Air Force slide provided to author by Lt Gen David Deptula (USAF, Ret).

[4] Even this comparison is imperfect as the U-2 has defense mechanisms, can fly faster, and carry a greater payload.

[5] Information from DailyTech report (Hatamoto, 2011).

[6] See Shalal-Esa (2013) for Global Hawk flight-hour costs.

[7] Discussing the development of the U.S. Air Force’s next generation bomber and the prospects for an unmanned variant, Lt. Gen. Charles Davis emphasized the need for developing the manned capable aircraft first.  “Very rarely should we be out maturing new technologies in new platforms…Once we are certain that a technology is at a usable level, then our acquisition programs can do the hard work of integrating. We have a hard enough time integrating engines, air frames, sensors; we should not be inventing things that have not been developed (Osborn, 2013).”

[8] Likely noted first in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005–2030 (Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005–2030, 2005), accessible online at http://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/uav_roadmap2005.pdf.   Singer and others readily use this phrase when describing the utilization of RPAs.

[9] Prominent examples include the report Living Under Drones (Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan) and UN Investigator Ben Emmerson’s report from March 2013 (Abbot, 2013).

IAIs-Unmanned-Surface-Vessel

Unmanned Systems and Distributed Operations: Out of One, Many

Let’s face facts: it appears the U.S. Navy is incapable of building surface combatants, even small ones, for less than about a billion dollars apiece.  Consequently, it is likely the fleet will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.  Yet it appears that the global demand for surface ship presence remains high for both peacetime operations and as an on-call force for contingency response.  So how can the Navy continue to meet worldwide operational commitments given fewer ships?  The key to maximizing the effectiveness of a declining surface force lies in combining suitable motherships with the latest unmanned warfighting technology.

Unmanned naval systems are rapidly proliferating internationally because they are increasingly capable and cheaper than manned alternatives for certain missions.  To date, sea-based unmanned systems have primarily conducted intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and mine countermeasures operations.  But within the next decade or so, we’ll see naval drones supporting a much wider spectrum of warfighting; including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare, vertical replenishment, and even anti-air warfare. 

Fundamentally, naval warfare is about deploying payloads (sensors, weapons, and people) into different domains (water, air, land, and electromagnetic/cyber) from or against sea-based platforms.  These payloads have historically been delivered from ships, submarines, and aircraft.  Ships deploy offensive and defensive weapons, or those of their embarked aircraft, out to the limit of their organic sensors.  Sometimes they can be delivered over-the-horizon when cued by the sensors of another platform.  A guided missile destroyer fires its magazines of anti-aircraft weapons at targets it can detect and track.  A frigate deploys a single towed array sonar and perhaps a helicopter with sonobuoys and torpedoes that extend the reach of its ASW reach. A corvette can engage a surface threat within the range of its guns and surface search radar or electro-optical fire control system.  The point is that current naval operations are generally designed around weapons and systems hosted from surface combatants, so the number of primary platforms available limits the span of a Navy’s operations.

The Venus is an unmanned surface vehicle built by Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited (ST Electronics) and based on a hull developed by US company Navatek Ltd.

The Venus is an unmanned surface vehicle built by Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited (ST Electronics) and based on a hull developed by US company Navatek Ltd.

By employing distributed maritime operations, a single surface platform with embarked unmanned vehicles can operate over a wider area than one without.  Using a multi-tiered hub-and-spoke concept, a large surface ship should be capable of simultaneously operating dozens of air, surface, and sub-surface vessels.  Some of these would be launched from an intermediate staging craft carried on the mothership such as a RHIB or Unmanned Surface Vehicle, while others will launch directly from the main ship.  Currently, many of these intermediate platforms are manned, but in the future, large volume unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned surface vehicles will operate for several days or more independently from a larger mothership which transports them into an operational theater.  The persistent over-the-horizon UUVs and USVs will deploy their own smaller drone counterparts to transport sensors or weapons the last dozens of miles to a target. 

Despite more than a few hiccups in her development, this distributed operations model is roughly the construct that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will follow.  The off-board MIW and ASW mission packages will consist of a variety of UUVs, USVs, and the MQ-8B Firescout UAV.  The LCS was designed to shift out entire mission packages to use the same “sea frame” for surface, anti-surface, or mine counter-measures operations, although not at the same time.  The intent of this modularity was additional flexibility with fewer platforms; however, that concept of operations has not panned out because the ships will not be capable of shifting warfare areas as quickly as originally envisioned.  Rather than focusing on the LCS’ modularity and ability to transfer wholesale mission packages, it would be wiser to shift attention to finalizing the actual vehicles and interfaces that will support these warfare mission areas.  Moreover, LCS unmanned payloads that are not compatible with other vessels should be scrapped immediately.  With the future of the LCS program uncertain at best, unmanned vehicle integration lessons learned should be leveraged for other platforms. Flexibility and compatibility with multiple platforms are the key to ensuring a distributed operations model is successful.

Ships that feature spare volume for additional payloads and “interfaces” – flight decks, well decks, ramps, davits, and cranes – will be in highest demand for distributed operations involving drones.  So in addition to LCS, amphibious ships, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), and other Military Sealift Command ships are included in this category.  In tune with the CNO’s “payload over platform” theme, given these attributes, ships that might otherwise not be considered state of the art warfighting vessels can have a new lease on life as unmanned motherships.  And ships that have generally been considered auxiliaries will now play a role in supporting offensive naval warfare by deploying sensors and weapons systems to complement the main batteries of high end surface combatants.  The end result of these drone motherships will be more sensors and weapons deployed across a wider ocean area with the same, if not smaller number of surface combatants.

The venerable Ponce’s recent conversion into an Afloat Forward Staging Base and its ongoing Arabian Gulf deployment is telling.  Ponce flew the ScanEagle UAV from her own flight deck, but also demonstrated the ability embark several Riverine Command Boats (RCBs) which can operate the PUMA UAV.  In a wartime scenario, each of these UAVs could support targeting for surface engagement (whether from a VBSS team or anti-surface missile).  During International Mine Countermeasures Exercises, Ponce deployed RHIBs with multiple mine-hunting UUVs.  So while a traditional surface ship might operate a boat or two and the same number of helicopters, using unmanned vehicles, that same platform can deploy numerous sensors and weapons at a considerable distance from the ship across all maritime domains.  

Distributed unmanned operations will require new concepts in afloat logistics.  Moored undersea docking stations to recharge the batteries of long range UUVs should be designed for air or surface deployment.  Unmanned air vehicles flying from surface ships will also support vertical resupply of distributed sea and ground elements operating hundreds of miles from their motherships.  This concept has been demonstrated successfully ashore with the K-MAX rotary wing vehicle which has flown 17,000+ sorties in Afghanistan since 2011, delivering over four million pounds of supplies to Marines in remote forward operating bases. 

The critical path to operational success will be tying all these systems together. Common technology standards and protocols must be developed sooner rather than later as discussed in detail here by Captain Lundquist.  Rather than relying on 40 year old legacy data-links, the architecture that connects manned and unmanned systems, regardless of domain, should be secure, light-weight, high-bandwidth, and affordable.  With today’s technology, those attributes need not be mutually exclusive.

The challenges and limitations to deploying these distributed unmanned concepts are non-trivial.  In addition to the issues with standards discussed above, autonomous algorithms need improvement, electrical storage capacity (especially for UUVs) must be increased, and cultural apprehension to offensive unmanned vessels need to be overcome.  But shrinking operational reach need not be a foregone conclusion with declining fleet size if the next wave in operating unmanned vehicles distributively is embraced.

CDR Chris Rawley is a surface warfare officer.  The opinions expressed are his own. 

what

Remote Aviation Technology – What are We Actually Talking About?

This is the first article of our “Drone Week”, which has been slightly truncated by the Crimean Crisis.

In most ‘drone’ conferences, there comes an awkward moment when a panelist realizes that the category ‘drone’ has very little to do with the question that they’re asking.  To quote the Renaissance philosopher Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”  In order to improve the remote aviation technology discussion, we need to be clear what we’re actually talking about. 

What we should be talking about is ‘remote aviation technology,’ which is simply a fusion of the air and cyber domains through the ubiquitous technologies of datalinks, autopilots, and performance airframes.  The fundamental tension is not between risk and responsibility, the two things over which the pop-sci-strat ‘drone’ debate obsesses, but between latency and performance.  To the risk point, a military has a moral obligation to reduce risk to its warfighters, so reducing risk through tech is not new; to the responsibility point, professionalism and integrity are the roots for the warfighter’s seriousness about their duties, not risk.  We find that we’ve actually been dealing with these questions for a while – so we have some pretty effective models already, which we can use as soon as we get the definitions straight. 

First, we must take all the conceptual rocks out of the ‘drones’ rucksack.  We can say definitively what we aren’t talking about.  We are looking only for questions that are new or fundamentally altered by remote aviation technology: any discussion that can be understood through extant tech or literature probably should be.  What is not changed by the advent of remote aviation technology?

  • The ethics of airstrikes and targeting – kinetics are no more intrinsic to remote aviation than they are to manned aircraft.  The same weapons deployed from Reapers are also launched from Apaches and F-16s.  The idea of ‘drone strikes’ as distinct from ‘air strikes’ is a distraction.  The choice to apply force comes from a chain of command, not from a circuit board.
  • The effectiveness of air campaigns – calling persistent airpower a ‘drone campaign’ is as reductionist as calling landpower a ‘carbine campaign.’  Certainly, long-dwell sensor-shooter remote aircraft have greatly expanded the possibilities for persistent airpower, but AC-47 gunships conducted a major persistent air campaign over the Ho Chi Minh trail – we would do better to remember this historical precedent rather than treat the capability as new, strange, or different.    
  • The nature of sovereignty in the modern international system – There is some very difficult homework that remains to be done about how best to deal with the export of violence from ungoverned or poorly governed spaces, and about the conduct of conflict against global, networked non-state actors.  Though some answers to these Westphalian questions involve persistent remote air platforms, these questions are themselves not a function of the technology. For instance, the British used airpower in these ways well before the Second World War. 
  •  The cultural issues and experience of remote killing.  These questions are foregrounded by remote aviation technology, but they are not intrinsic to this technology.  Artillerists, SWOs and manned airmen similarly wrestle with these sorts of questions – this issue is as old as arrows and siege engines. 

With these big rocks removed, we find two things left in this analytical rucksack of ‘drones.’  At the bottom of the pack, there’s a pile of emotional sediment in the shape of scary killer robots, and autonomous, invincible sci-fi nightmares that make war risk-free at the cost of our humanity.  Using these fictions to reason about actual remote aircraft is much like using the Easter Bunny to think about the role of rabbits in ecosystems.  Since these tropes and this misguided inter-subjectivity drives much of the public pop-discourse, we are certainly not talking about this ontological flotsam.

This leaves only the aircraft themselves, which is precisely what we want.  We’ve argued in other works that, for most discussions, we should consider Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, UCLASS and so on the same way we consider any other aircraft – by mission, not by control system.  E.g., for almost all intents and purposes, Reapers are persistent reconnaissance-attack aircraft.  Similarly, we generally don’t consider the F-16 and the C-17 as ‘the same thing’ because they both have fly-by-wire systems.  But sometimes it matters that they have fly-by-wire systems vice electro-hydraulic control cables – e.g., for example, during an EMP event.  And sometimes, it matters that a ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system drives the Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, the BQ-8 (Modified B-24),  the SAGE F-106, the Sukhoi-15TM, and so on.

How, then, does a ‘fly-by-wireless’ system matter?  The presumed tension for this technology is risk vs. responsibility – long-range datalinks reduce risk to the pilot, and since the pilot has ‘no skin in the game,’ they are presumed to be less invested in their choices.  This is deeply problematic – a military has a moral imperative to reduce risk to its warfighters.  Secretary Gates’ continually and rightly obsessed over body armor, MEDEVAC, and other risk mitigation technologies – this was a testament to his integrity.

While it is certainly true that increasing distance reduces risk, this does not inherently change warrior’s perception of his or her own responsibility to the mission and to comrades.  A lack of responsibility about killing results from a lack of professionalism or integrity, poor training, or other personnel problems.  SSBN crews isolate their weapons from risk through technology, and are similarly distant from their potential acts of killing.  I trust that our submarine community sees their duties with the deadly seriousness that they deserve.  Risk reduction through technology is ubiquitous, and these reductions do not undermine warfighter responsibilities: this is not truly a tension.

Similarly, advocates of ‘supply-side war control’ cite this risk point – the theory being that, without having to put constituents at risk, policymakers will be more willing to go to war.  If the risk vs. responsibility logic plays out on a strategic level (and if this is so, it is due to the political construct of ‘drone warfare’ rather than the technology itself), this tension is better answered through accountability for strategic choices rather than by inducing risk on our warfighters.  Just as Creighton Abrams’ attempt to downgrade the Special Operations community did little to keep the United States out of small wars, this approach is unlikely to deter policymakers.  For jus ad bellum questions, it is far better to focus on the pen of policymakers than on the red button of warfighters; better to locate risk at the ballot-box than in than soldiers’ lives.     

These points are covered at length by BJ Strawser and his co-authors in Killing by Remote Control: air warfare has no special moral problems inherent to the technology.   So we will have to look further to understand how and why the tech matters. 

What, then, is the actual tension of remote aviation technology?  Latency versus performance.  On one hand, a ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system allows the aircraft to keep weighty, expensive and risky components of the aircraft on the ground, where the performance constraints are far less pressing.  Accordingly, without the limitations of a human body and without cost of life support systems, designs that would otherwise be impossible can be fielded.  This performance can be cashed out as:

  • Persistence: A long-dwell design, such as the Predator or the Reaper, allows for sorties much longer than crew rest would normally allow – these designs focus on optimizing persistence, typically at the expense of survivability in high-threat environments.  These aircraft share bloodlines with persistent sensor-shooter craft such as the Gunship. 
  • Survivability:  A survivable design, such as the Taranis, makes use of small size, stealth and high maneuverability.  Without the size requirements for human habitation, these craft have new tactical options that pair well with advanced tactical aircraft.  They are cousins to F-22 fifth generation fighters. 
  • Affordability:  A low-cost design best fits the traditional definition of ‘drone’ – like the Firebee, a semi-disposable aircraft intended for ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ jobs.  Quad-copters and the proposed Amazon delivery ‘drones’ fit this category well – these generally perform simple tasks and are not economical to remotely pilot in the traditional direct sense.  Swarming adds a new twist to these ‘drones’ – distributed capabilities makes a flock of these vehicles capable in its own right as air players.  Notably, the risk-reduction logic applies best to these craft – a survivable or a persistent aircraft will generally be too costly to be used as disposable assets, but if a design is built to be cheap from the outset, then it can be used in these ways.  (The same logic applies to missiles, which could be themselves considered ‘drones.’) 

The downside is latency.  For ‘fly-by-wireless’ control systems to work, there must be a way to port human control and judgment to the craft.  In a manned aircraft, where the crew builds situational awareness in an expanding ‘bubble’ around the craft; in a remote craft, the crew must ‘drill’ from their control station, through a web of datalinks, into their craft.  The negative result of this process is that the remote aircraft will typically be slower than an equivalent manned aircraft; this is offset by the ease with which a remote aircraft can link to offboard assets for situational awareness.  Still, the fundamental problem of the link remains.  There are two approaches to solving this problem:

  • Physics: Increasing gain and decreasing distance both increase the strength of the link between the remote operator and the aircraft.  Conversely, a contested Electronic Warfare environment seeks to degrade this link.  Accordingly, in the ‘physics’ solution, we anticipate a world with airborne RPA pilots, who fly their craft from aboard a ‘mothership’ craft.  Such a world hearkens back to the idea of an interlocking B-17 ‘Combat Box’ formation.
  • Automation:  The second approach ‘bottles’ human judgment and agency into an algorithm, and sends the remote craft on its way with these instructions.  When the craft can no longer maintain link, it executes these algorithms, performs its mission, and returns to base (if possible.)  This is essentially what already happens with advanced missiles.  The difficulty of this approach is the risk of ‘complex failure,’ if the craft is asked to perform a task whose complexity exceeds these algorithms.  For precisely scripted missions, this approach works well; for ‘improvisational’ missions such as CAS, it falters. 

If latency vs. performance is the fundamental tension of this technology, then much of the contemporary debate misses the mark.  For example, ‘optionally manned’ aircraft are touted to bridge the gap between manned and remote craft.  From a risk-vs-responsibility frame, this makes perfect sense – if you want to send the craft on a high-risk mission, leave the pilot at home.  But from a latency-vs-performance frame, it recalls the old joke about Washington, DC: a town with Southern efficiency and Northern charm.  Since one cannot cash back in the weight of life support systems and the like when they leave the pilot on the ground, optionally manned aircraft have the latency of an RPA and the performance of a manned aircraft – the worst of both worlds.

‘Complement,’ as described by my friend and classmate Rich Ganske, is a much better answer.  If humans excel at judgment, and robots excel at math, then when the robots can do more math, it frees up the humans to do more judgment.  The partnership between humans and hardware – both onboard and offboard hardware – is, and long has been, the key to dominating the battlespace.  The natural contours of remotely-piloted aviation tech complement well the natural contours of directly-piloted aviation tech – they are each strong where the other is weak, and together are better than either is alone.  How does this look, in practice?  For two non-exhaustive examples: 

  • Aerial Dominance Campaign:  In this world, low-cost autonomous craft, much like the TACIT RAINBOW or countermeasures would complicate an adversary’s air defense tasks, while high-end survivable craft linked as ‘loyal wingmen’ to similarly survivable manned craft.   In this war, every aircraft is a squadron, and every pilot a combat squadron commander.  Accordingly, the art of socio-technical systems command begins to take precedence over technical tasks for the future aviator. 
  • Vertical Dominance Campaign: A persistent air campaign team would use both remote and manned aircraft jointly to vertically dominate a battlespace from a persistent air environment.  The manned and remote aircraft that inhabit this space sacrifice maneuverability and speed for endurance and payload.   The craft we most often associate with remote technology inhabit this world, but we do the discussion a disservice by assuming the vulnerabilities of persistent aircraft are inherent to the design of remote aircraft. 

We’ve described a number of things that are only orthogonally related to remote aviation technology: air strikes, air campaigns, sovereignty and remote killing.  Once we removed those rocks from our rucksack, we were left with ‘fly-by-wireless’ control system technology.  We wrestled with the supposed primary tension of the technology – risk vs. responsibility, which we reject.  Our proposed primary alternate tension is – latency vs. performance.  There are three ways to gain improved performance from a remote control system: persistence, survivability and affordability; each of these has strengths and weaknesses in different environments, and are generally in tension with each other.  There are two ways to solve the remote latency problem: physics, which may involve partnering manned aircraft, and automation, which has problems dealing with complexity.  Ultimately, we argue that the best answers pair manned and remotely piloted aircraft together. Remote aircraft add tremendous performance to the team, while manned aircraft provide essential situational awareness and judgment to complex combat. 

Dave Blair is an active duty officer in the United States Air Force and a PhD student at Georgetown University.