The Future of Unmanned Vehicles: Militaries Keep Their Options Open

8 MINS READJun 7, 2015 | 13:15 GMT
U.S. maintenance personnel check a Predator drone before a surveillance flight near the Mexican border.
U.S. maintenance personnel check a Predator drone before a surveillance flight near the Mexican border.
(JOHN MOORE/Getty Images)
Forecast Bullets
  • Just because militaries can design effective unmanned vehicles does not mean they will design them en masse. Instead, they will build systems that can be used both remotely and manually to optimize their functionality.
  • However, institutional inertia and a general resistance to change will ensure that the adoption of hybridized systems takes a long time.  
  • The United States will continue to be a pioneer in this field, since it already has much of the requisite infrastructure to manage a large volume of remotely operated vehicles.

The idea of replacing every one of the military's manned vehicles with an unmanned system was once an unattainable fantasy. But with the development of remote technology, it has moved firmly into the realm of reality, and the popularity of drone use in the war against militant Islam has prompted a debate over what kinds of vehicles should compose its future fleets. And while the national conversation has focused almost exclusively on aircraft, unmanned technology has applications in ground and sea vehicles as well. Remote operation has the potential to further transform the way the United States makes war.

Earlier this year, in fact, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Fabus said the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is currently being developed, could well be the last manned fighter aircraft his branch of the military will ever buy or fly. His comment prompted responses over the strengths and weaknesses of remote operation technology. One side argues that the design advantages of unmanned vehicles outweigh the challenges they introduce; the other insists that only a human can properly use even the best designed systems.

Ultimately, geopolitical imperatives, not political rhetoric, are what drive weapons technology. As governments continue to prioritize the targeting of terrorist cells and non-state actors, remote operation technology will remain a critical tool in their counterterrorism operations. Unmanned technology, with all the tactical advantages it offers on land, water and in the air, is here to stay.

The debate, then, is over how quickly and to what extent armed forces should make the switch from manned to unmanned systems. Both systems have disadvantages, and each one offers something the other does not. U.S. military leaders understand as much, and so the United States will design hybridized systems that combine the best elements of manned and unmanned vehicles. 

The Case For and Against a Human Element

Unmanned technology offers undeniable design advantages. Without the constraints that come with carrying and protecting a human operator, military vehicles could be faster, more powerful and longer-lasting. For example, existing technologies can make aircraft far more maneuverable at faster speeds, which improves their performance exponentially. But excessive G-forces can kill the pilot. Remove the human operator, and the design possibilities expand.

The same concept can be applied to other vehicles, too. Designers could, for instance, replace the weight and volume taken up by human operators with increased fuel reserves, making it possible for vehicles to travel farther than they once could. The military could also alter the shape and size of the vehicle itself. An unmanned aircraft could have a smaller radar cross section than a manned aircraft. Remotely piloted ground vehicles with smaller silhouettes could hide behind terrain more easily.

In addition to the benefits of their design, unmanned vehicles can be operated for longer by pilots and crews in chairs than by pilots and crews in cockpits or hulls. In remote operation, crews can work in shifts, rotating fresh controllers as necessary on one long mission for as long as the vehicle's power supply holds out. And while isolating operators in their manned vehicles leaves little room for collaboration, controllers working remotely benefit from real-time assistance from peers, superiors or specialists such as legal advisers.

Unmanned systems also give the military operational flexibility. With remote technology, soldiers can engage an enemy without actually placing themselves in the line of fire. Without the risk of casualties or captured personnel, the U.S. government can conduct military operations with a lower political price.

However, arguments against unmanned vehicles abound. Advocates for manned systems insist that a human element makes any given platform more effective. They argue that even the most technologically advanced weapons rely on the operator's situational awareness, instinct and ability to make a judgment based on one's senses and intellect to perform well.

Remote piloting also exposes military operations to another layer of risk. The networks these systems rely on are vulnerable to destruction or infiltration by the enemy. And even on a day-to-day basis they are not always reliable. Disruptions and failures in the remote connection have been a recurring problem for drone operators. Satellite feeds over long distance are still not perfectly reliable. Unsurprisingly, there are far more unmanned vehicle crashes than manned ones.

One proposed way to circumvent the limitations of both systems would be to design vehicles that are autonomous. Not only would they be unmanned, but they would be programmed to operate largely without human involvement or decision-making. While the technology for autonomous operation is advancing, it is not nearly mature enough to fall within the scope of the current debate. For technical, practical and ethical reasons, autonomous systems are a long way from being as commonly accepted as conventional drones.

Origins of the Debate

Unmanned aerial vehicles became popular weapons in the war against militant Islam. The United States and its allies have taken advantage of the efficiency, endurance, lower cost and lower risk associated with unmanned aerial vehicles to identify high-value targets hidden within local populations. To make that mission possible, the United States built up the robust global architecture necessary to support unmanned missions.

That architecture makes the widespread use of remote piloting technology more viable. It involves a space infrastructure, including satellites that facilitate global data movement, and a U.S. military presence that spans the globe and allows for the positioning of requisite equipment. Pilots in the United States could take advantage of that global presence by linking in and flying any unmanned platform around the world. Currently, this support system has been used primarily for aerial drones, but the military could theoretically use the equipment they have in place to support any kind of unmanned vehicle.

Countries throughout the world are attempting to apply the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles to sea and land equipment and to more fully equipped and versatile kinds of aircraft. Such vehicles could have capabilities beyond the unmanned aerial vehicle's limited role of surveillance and attacks on small targets.

A Hybridized System

In the development of remotely piloted technology, the most commonly articulated vision for new designs is for them to function exclusively as unmanned systems, without the possibility of an in-vehicle pilot. However, the U.S. military has been incorporating both manned and unmanned technology into its designs. With its most recent generations of manned systems, the United States is trying to leverage the global architecture it has built for unmanned vehicles while maintaining the advantages of manned systems. Its new and adapted platforms would have the flexibility to either carry a pilot or operate remotely, without significant redesign or reconfiguration.

The U.S. military is considering converting some existing platforms, such as the UH-60 Blackhawk, to this hybridized system. At the same time, it is very likely to incorporate unmanned abilities into projects previously focused on designing purely manned systems, such as the long-range strategic bomber project.

The United States is not the only country to take a middle ground in the debate on manned vs. unmanned systems, as evidenced by Russia's new Armata tank, which has both capabilities. Several other countries are considering similar options for future platforms, but the United States has an advantage because it has the global military presence and existing space infrastructure to support unmanned vehicles.

Russia's new Armata tank is designed to operate without an internal crew.

Tanks like the Armata are merely the beginning of an entirely new crop of vehicles. Militaries are generally designing newer platforms to be more automated, and most vehicles now consistently use fly-by or drive-by wire systems rather than analogue systems. Advanced sensor suites, which help guard against ever-evolving and proliferating weapon systems, have become commonplace.

Designers network every new vehicle they create to take advantage of communications and friendly-force tracking technologies. They also improve intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities to improve situational awareness. Coupled with the networks and infrastructure already in place, it is only a small step or two from these capabilities to remote operation.

A Gradual Transformation

Despite the modifications underway, institutions tend to resist rapid or radical change. Unmanned aerial vehicles first emerged as a military tool more than fifty years ago. Germans and Americans used them intermittently to strike enemy targets in World War II, and they performed various roles throughout the Cold War. Yet only in the past decade have they been widely used in counterterrorism operations.

Bold predictions about increased drone use belie the fact that militaries are slow to commit to new systems. That many of the arguments against unmanned systems have merit will surely slow the debate even more, forestalling the obsolescence of manned vehicles.

And so the U.S. military will keep its options open by designing vehicles with the flexibility to be manned and unmanned. Until those vehicles have proved their worth on the battlefield, aircraft like the F-35 are not going anywhere anytime soon. 

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