The Best Defense

U.S. military UAV guys talk a good game, but do they have their eye on the ball?

By Emily Schneider
Best Defense office of remotelyism

What 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.

That, and a major doctrinal shift.

At 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 the discussion.

The 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.

But Col. 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 access.

But no 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.

If the 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.


The Best Defense

Why today's readers can learn from a new book about WWI hero Rickenbacker

Tom Ricks: OK, why another book about Eddie Rickenbacker?

John Ross: The vast majority of material written on Rickenbacker falls under either hero worship or the idea that he fooled us all, because at heart he was a mean-spirited, self-absorbed jerk. The truth, of course, is far more complex -- and ultimately far more interesting.

He's one of those men who invites strong feelings. He liked everyone to focus on his remarkable deeds, not on him as a man. He became quite adept at deflecting personal questions. He built quite a Teflon veneer around himself as the great American hero. It's so easy to just buy into any one of the myths: rags to riches, shining knight of the skies, the unkillable man, that sort of thing. I've had to be careful of becoming blinded myself by the brilliance of his hair-raising exploits.

His real story turns out to be more remarkable than the myths.

Biographies of the past have missed essential truths because of all this. I found some strong primary source material that helped me to penetrate his character more deeply, I think, than others have.

TR: What do today's audiences need to know about him?

JR: There are a handful of Americans who exhibit the nature of courage that he did. I call it "enduring" courage to differentiate it from the hot blush of courage that often occurs when we're confronted with danger. It's where experience, wisdom, and guts merge -- and greatness occurs. Washington had it. So did Grant and Lincoln. Eisenhower exhibited it in spades at D-Day.

We need to be reminded that this kind of courage built this country. Too often these days, I hear a lot of whining, people making excuses. It's important to know about people like Rickenbacker and how they lived their lives. It gives us context to understand what we are capable of as well as who we are as Americans.

TR: Also, what does your book tell the reader about World War I, and especially American involvement in it?

JR: There are lots of good books now coming out about World War I as the centennial approaches. They tend to be large looks about the complex relations between nations and how they came tragically into terrible conflict. One of the big stories is that World War I was not the warm-up to World War II, but actually the signal event of the century, laying the foundation for everything to follow, not just World War II, but the Cold War all the way up to the formation of the European Union and beyond.

My book is a little different than these others in that it offers a glimpse of the war through one man's life. I think readers will be shocked at the level of anti-German hatred directed at him. I also think that Enduring Courage gives some valuable insight into the difficulties America faced entering the war so late, but also what a critical role we did play. The world map would look very different if not for our timely intervention.

TR: Did you enjoy writing this book?

JR: Yes, very much. What a treat to spend so much time getting to know the young American flyers of World War I through their letters and journals. Though long dead, they became so real, almost like friends to me. Coming up with new insights about Rickenbacker and the time he lived in was intoxicating.

TR: What is next for you?

JR: I'm not done writing about the role of courage in American history, so I'm currently researching several interesting figures, one of which, I hope, will be the subject of my next book.