All posts by Matthew Merighi

Embracing Pandora’s Box – Unleash the Drone Exports

Drones are a rapidly expanding market in the international arms trade. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) is crucial for operating in the modern battlespace and drones are the best way to get that information by maximizing loiter and removing risk to a pilot. Demand is high and supply is low; only a few countries produce the class of drones that are most in demand. This would seem a perfect market for the United States to sell its wares and dominate the exchange but it is currently hamstrung by policies which discourage their export. The hesitation to export the technology, while done for good reasons like maintaining United States’ technological advantage and protecting a powerful capability from exploitation by foreign agents, is misguided; without the powerful network of communications satellites and Global Information Grid (GIG), the drones themselves are little more than complex model airplanes with good cameras. The United States’ efforts are akin to closing Pandora’s Box because of imagined evils without recognizing the good that remains left trapped inside.
 
Exporting drones is a good thing for the United States. First, it promulgates a capability we want our allies and partners to possess. For years, British and Italian MQ-9 Reapers have patrolled the skies over Afghanistan, bringing the twin benefit of additional ISR to the battlefield and eliminating the need for American assets to cover those units. In addition, the British have armed MQ-9s that provide additional strike assets to coalition operations. The United States only stands to gain by exporting more of these assets.
 
Dominating the supply of drones brings the United States leverage it would not otherwise have. Just as with other aviation assets, drones need a steady stream of supplies to be viable. If the country that operates those assets uses them for purposes that are against the United States’ interests, the United States can then press forward with sanctions and cut off supply of crucial parts needed to keep the assets operational. In a world fraught with fault lines and shifting loyalties, leverage matters.
 
There are a couple arguments in favor of restricting drone exports. The first is wishful thinking. The argument holds that by restricting the sale of to foreign clients, we will deny them drone capabilities, particularly their ability to conduct strike missions. The problem is that Pandora’s Box is already open. Even though there are few suppliers of in the field right now, there are many others that are about to enter the market. A joint European consortium, led by France, is developing the nEUROn. Britain is developing the Taranis. China is aggressively marketing the ASN-209 at international airshows. Chris Rawley highlighted Singapore’s entry into the market in his recent article (https://cimsec.org/unmanned-systems-distributed-operations-one-many/). Even Turkey is developing the Anka. If there are lots of suppliers, the United States will no longer have its privileged negotiating position and will need to make more available to encourage use of its platforms. This means expanding the list of what is exportable and seriously considering exporting armed assets.
Taranis
Britain is developing the Taranis, one of many competitors the United States will face in the international drone marketplace (image from BAE Systems)
 
The other argument against exporting drones is out of fantasy (as Dave Blair elucidates in his excellent article here: https://cimsec.org/remote-aviation-technology-actually-talking/). The argument goes that the United States should not export drones because they are a revolutionary capability that would unfairly strengthen possible adversaries. This, too, falls short. The aircraft themselves are only a small portion of the equation and what makes them great tools of war. The real strength of drones is their ability to conduct global operations which requires the United States’ network of satellite communications to operate in a distributed manner. Without that network, the drones are nothing more than a more capable model airplane that linger longer than a fighter or helicopter.
 
The story of Pandora’s Box ends with Pandora desperately shutting the lid in a vain attempt to keep bad things from entering the world. Unfortunately for Pandora, it was too late; the damage was done. The only effect that she reaped by keeping the box closed was to leave hope penned inside. While the United States did not unleash the desire for countries to acquire drones, it certainly is achieving the same effect as Pandora by ignoring the world in which it lives. The better course of action is to recognize what drones are truly capable of on their own and embrace an export mindset.
Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force’s Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA). His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force.

Hasbro Announces Reboot of “Battleship”

International Maritime Satire Week Warning: The following is a piece of fiction intended to elicit insight through the use of satire and written by those who do not make a living being funny – so it’s not serious and very well might not be funny. See the rest of our IntMarSatWeek offerings here

It’s a classic from your childhood, but in the cut-throat board game business nothing is sacred.

In a surprise move the board game manufacturer Hasbro announced a series of changes to their stalwart wargame classic, “Battleship,” that would bring it into the 21st century. Their name of choice: “LCS,” referring to the Navy’s recently introduced Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

“We thought it was time to bring ‘Battleship’ in line with the modern U.S. Navy,” said Martin Sawyer, the spokesman for Hasbro game, at a press conference on Friday afternoon. “When you think of the missions of a modern navy, you immediately think of the LCS.”

Hasbro officials believe that, while the image of a massive capital ship with unquestioned firepower was enough to carry the franchise over the past five decades, the name “Battleship” no longer resonates with their young target demographics.

“The age of the battleship has clearly passed. Heck, it was gone by the time we made the game. It’s time to make this a modern game.” Off the record, sources say the real reason for the change may be that the rare earth metals used to make the aircraft carrier pieces became exhorbiantly expensive, scuttling the move to rebrand the game “Carrier.” Officials also say the fact that ‘LCS’ contains 3 syllables played a role – enabling players to bemoan in the traditional “you sunk my….” phrasing the sinking of their vessels, over and over again. 

Battleship, which first started as a pen-and-paper game in the 1930s, has been a Hasbro mainstay since it was first released in its present form in 1967. In the game, two would-be fleet commanders square off in a battle of wits, vigor, and dumb luck by blindly firings at points on a grid to damage their opponent’s navy. Ships “sink” when they receive a requisite number of hits. Smaller ships, like the destroyer, take up fewer spaces on the grid and are thus harder to hit. This leads to real-life situations where the destroyer is more valuable than other, larger ships such as the cruiser, submarine, and aircraft carrier. “LCS” will build off this trend by replacing the ships in each navy exclusively with LCS destroyers.

The U.S. Navy was quick to praise the changes. “The LCS is a testament to the future of the low-observable Navy,” said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Michael Fabian. “It stands to reason that a game like ‘Battleship,’ where navies wildly shoot at empty water in an attempt to hit something, perfectly reflects the capacity of the LCS in the naval domains of the future.”

After battling aliens, pirates, and G.I.Joe, Battleship is moving on

Others, though, are not convinced. Some members of the surface warfare community that were allowed to playtest the new version have instituted the “Fire Scout” rule, referring to the shipboard UAV, which allows a player to look at the opponents board before declaring their shot. “Even if LCS is low-observable we still have eyes and flying robot cameras with persistent-loiter capability,” said one surly surface warfare officer.

“Seriously,” he said, “we can still see them with our freaking eyes.”

Members of the Air Force also added their own ruleset “Rods from God.” In the Rod God Mod, players are allowed to look at their opponent’s board and then immediately destroy a ship of their choice with tungsten rods dropped from satellites. “Take that, naval power!” said an Air Force playtester, right before the same rods destroyed his immobile, land-based runways in the modified game.

In conjunction with the rebranding, Universal Pictures announced that the blockbuster movie Battleship would be given a gritty reboot in line with the boardgame. Gone is the emphasis of capital ship warfare against aliens; instead, the movie will feature even greater suspension-of-disbelief in the dazzling capabilities of the LCS on the silver screen.

“Audiences will marvel at the LCS as it uses stealth technology to sneak up on pirate skiffs that lack radar and then do nothing further from lack of evidence that they are pirates!” said Universal sales representative Lester McPeak. “Think Captain Phillips but with less shooting and more bureaucracy.”

Added McPeak: “If Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel can get gritty reboots, we can totally do that for Battleship too. As long as we keep the same actors and writers, we should be just fine.”

Matthew Merighi is an employee of the United State Air Force, but we tolerate him anyway. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government but he hopes they are appreciated by other snarky Pentagon millennials.