By Emily Schneider
Best Defense office of remotelyism
will allow the United States to keep its edge in unmanned armed weapons systems
and continue to be the best fighting force in the free world? One might think
the answer would be to continue developing better technology: smaller yet
equally powerful drones, more life-like robots, and super-efficient striking
systems. But the reality is much simpler than that. All America needs is better
training for the technology it already has.
and a major doctrinal shift.
least, that's the impression I took away from a recent panel at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies on "Sustaining the U.S. Lead on DoD Unmanned Systems,"
especially from the Air Force panelist, Col. Kenneth Callahan, director of the
Air Force RPA Capabilities Division. He said at the very beginning of the
panel that the countries that develop new drone technology are not always the
ones who figure out how best to use it and continued with that theme throughout
other panelists were sure to mention what they saw as the biggest challenge:
fiscal constraints placed on each of their branches by Congress's restrictive
budget. As Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, USMC, Unmanned Ground Systems CIO, HQMC
Combat Development and Integration, said after quickly highlighting all of the
new technology that has been implemented by the Marines since 9/11: "The future
is bright ... I wish the fiscal outlook was much the same." Somewhat strangely,
all of the speakers seemed to be in agreement about what isn't a challenge so
far, and that's collaboration between branches. Capt. Chris Corgnati of the
U.S. Navy, who is deputy director of that service's ISR capabilities, pointed
out that cooperation among the forces for RPAs is the best that it's ever been.
Callahan was certainly the most frank about the future facing the U.S. military
if it fails to control the unmanned beast it has created. While Capt. Corgnati
admitted that the Navy has yet to codify most of its "thoughts" on unmanned
systems, he did so somewhat laughingly and after touting the operational impact
of the unmanned aircraft the Navy "can't get enough of." Col. Callahan on the
other hand, pointed out that challenges currently exist for the technology the
military already has, such as training people to operate and understand the
systems and then retaining that corporate knowledge. Lt. Col. Hixson noted that
the contractors who work with the military have better access to training and
technology than the military does these days. Col. Callahan seemed confident
that the country has the resources; he said the kids living in their mother's
basements in the United States today were "better" than kids living in their
mom's basements anywhere else in the world because of the technology they can
one on the panel seemed to connect these ideas in a way that seemed obvious to
me: The military needs to change the way it thinks about the tech culture as a
whole in a way that encourages recruitment of the brightest minds in the field.
future of unmanned armed systems in the United States depends so largely on
such a basic necessity, i.e. training operators, then why isn't the military
doing more to build up institutional knowledge based soundly in technical
fields? Probably because the "hacker," somewhat anarchist, independent culture
that has become stereotypical in the tech field does not mesh well with the
highly-disciplined, pro-government culture of the military. But bridging that
gap -- the one between the mothers' basements or Silicon Valley and West Point
-- might be the only way to sustain the U.S. lead on unmanned systems.
Emily Schneider is a research
associate for the International
Security Program at the New America Foundation and is also an
assistant editor for Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel.