As the Pentagon faces inevitable budget cuts, “innovation” and “adaptation” are the buzzwords of the day, but are they reality? The recent Department of Defense (DoD) Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) identifies innovation as a core theme, and Department leaders have gone to great lengths to stress that they have chosen to protect key investments for the future, even in lean times. The capability areas that DoD says it is protecting—cyber operations, special operations forces, and development of a new long-range bomber—indeed make sense strategically and will be extremely useful in future operating environments. DoD has also stressed that it is maintaining research and development funding in order to retain the U.S. military’s technological edge.
These overarching principles are almost certainly the right ones, but resources need to back them up. As the saying goes: “if it ain’t in the [budget], it ain’t.” In some areas, DoD is putting its money where its mouth is. The FY2015 budget allocates nearly a billion dollars towards the long-range bomber, which will be essential to future power projection. In other areas, the budget shows a modest reduction in programs that are supposed to be protected. While special operations forces will continue to grow from their current level of 66,000 personnel to 69,700, this is actually a reduction from previous plans to grow to 72,000. Similarly, the FY2015 budget highlights DoD’s $11.5 billion in research and development, but this is actually a 4% cut from FY2014 levels.
Six innovative areas
Many key investment areas for the future lie between major programs and basic research and development—the space where technologies are developed and experimented with. Below are six areas where DoD could use innovative approaches to solve tough operational problems. With a few exceptions, they aren’t funded in the budget. Not all of these are high-profile issues, but they are all vital to staying competitive in the future security environment. Many of these capability areas do not rise to the level of the Secretary of Defense’s attention, so they are a litmus test for whether the bureaucracy as a whole is following Secretary Hagel’s vision of innovating to adapt to future threats, or sacrificing innovation to preserve existing programs.
Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS)
The single biggest bellwether for how serious the DoD is taking innovation will be the fate of the Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) program. At the risk of simplifying a complicated debate, DoD has a choice whether to invest in a stealthy, but more costly UCLASS that will be useful against sophisticated adversaries or invest in a less expensive, less survivable version for counterterrorism missions. The argument for a stealthy UCLASS is that long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles like China’s DF-21D will push carriers out beyond the usable range of manned aircraft. Therefore, a highly capable unmanned aircraft that has a longer range is needed to make carriers relevant again in “anti-access” environments. The argument for a lower-cost UCLASS that could not survive in contested airspace is, well, about cost. Rarely has the Department had such a clear-cut choice between choosing in investing in the future or forgoing vital investments for the future to protect legacy “wasting assets.”
The Navy has been sending mixed messages about what sort of UCLASS it wants, a sign that the fight continues inside the Pentagon. The new budget shows a healthy amount of funding for UCLASS at $400 million in FY2015, more than triple the FY2014 funding. This is a positive sign, as is the Navy’s continued funding for the X-47B unmanned carrier demonstrator in FY2015. Until the Navy clarifies its requirements for UCLASS, however, the ultimate fate of the program will remain unknown.
Sea-based unmanned aircraft for expeditionary operations
Predators and Reapers have been game changers, but right now they can only fly from land bases. Flying them from carriers doesn’t make a lot of sense because carrier deck space is scarce and priority should be given to assets that can be used against sophisticated enemies. In addition, carriers themselves are scarce and the idea that the United States would park a carrier off the coast of, say, Somalia to fly counterterrorism missions seems implausible. At the same time, there is an urgent need to develop longer range, sea-based unmanned aircraft, both for counterterrorism and to support Special Operations forces and Marines for a variety of missions. The Navy zeroed out procurement for the ship-based MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and discontinued support of Special Operations requirements, a sign that it is moving backwards rather than forwards in this area.
A truly innovative approach would be to begin developing a medium-altitude unmanned aircraft, akin to a Predator or Reaper, to fly off of a helo carrier amphibious assault ship. Such an aircraft could be operated by the Marine Corps and could help support Marines with over-the-horizon surveillance and reconnaissance, close air support, and communications relay. The ship-based unmanned aircraft the Marine Corps is currently developing, the RQ-21A Blackjack, will be limited in its range and payload. Its 50 nautical mile range and 25 pound payload doesn’t come close to the 1,000 nautical mile range and 3,750 pound payload of a Reaper.
Owning Reaper-like capabilities would be a tremendous advantage for Marines, who never like to depend on others for air support. Furthermore, parking an amphibious assault ship off the coast of a country for counterterrorism operations would be much more reasonable and plausible than using an aircraft carrier. This kind of aircraft could be developed at low cost using existing technology and would have significant payoffs, but neither the Navy nor Marine Corps are even exploring possible options. DARPA is pursuing novel technological solutions, but this is a case where mature technology exists, yet the Services aren’t pursuing it.
Multi-Aircraft Control (MAC) technology
The Air Force prefers to call its unmanned aircraft “remotely piloted,” emphasizing that there is a person controlling each one. Current technology allows more efficient operational models, with one person controlling multiple aircraft at the same time. It is a game-changing technology that could save money and deliver greater capability, yet the Air Force isn’t investing in it.
The Air Force is reducing the number of Predator and Reaper around-the-clock “orbits” from 65 to 55. This reduction is driven by cost, as the demand for medium-altitude airborne surveillance far outstrips supply. The main cost-driver for these operations isn’t the aircraft, which are relatively cheap, but the personnel behind them. Each 24/7 “orbit” requires ten pilots, ten sensor operators, over sixty intel analysts, plus maintainers on the ground. There are technology solutions for reducing these numbers, however, including automated image processing to reduce the number of analysts and multi-aircraft control (MAC) interfaces to reduce the number of pilots.
Even though the biggest personnel burden is in intel analysts, pilots are more costly and the training pipeline for them is limited, making MAC a critical investment. Air Force plans just a few years ago envisioned up to 56% pilot manpower savings from MAC, with one pilot controlling up to four aircraft at a time for simple missions like stationary surveillance or transit between locations. If too many aircraft are engaged in complex missions like tracking moving targets or using weapons at the same time, then this degree of savings might not be achievable, but given the Air Force’s shortage of unmanned aircraft pilots, even a 10% improvement in efficiency would be significant.
Perhaps most importantly, MAC is a key enabler for future, large-scale use of swarms of unmanned aircraft. If the United States is to harness the true power of the robotics revolution, it needs to break the “remotely piloted” paradigm and move to a model where one human is controlling many unmanned systems, much like an air traffic controller. To date, however, the Air Force has been extremely resistant to developing MAC. In 2010, Secretary Gates directed the Air Force to develop MAC, but it has yet to bear fruit. Many inside the Air Force are uncomfortable with the idea of a pilot controlling multiple aircraft at the same time and see such aircraft as being “out of control.” Addressing these concerns will require a dedicated program of experimentation and technology development to learn what command-and-control models are appropriate for various operations and evolve the human machine interfaces and automation. Currently, the Air Force has no such program.
MAC has so far been a victim of internal struggles within the Air Force between those who want to push unmanned aviation into the future and those who want to cling to outdated operational models. The Air Force needs an incremental approach to overcome the current skepticism and build trust over time, but it isn’t clear that the service is even interested in doing so.
Low-cost attritable unmanned combat aircraft
One of the rationales for shifting away from Predators and Reapers is that they are not survivable in contested airspace, but this fundamentally misses the point of one of the advantages of unmanned aircraft, which is that they can be built to be low-cost, expendable, and therefore made in large numbers. A now-infamous 2008 study by the RAND Corporation showed that in a hypothetical fight with China, even if you assumed that all U.S. missiles hit their targets and no Chinese missiles hit U.S. F-22 fighters, China still would win the air fight because the U.S. would simply run out of missiles. Once this happened, Chinese fighters would be able to engage vulnerable U.S. tanker aircraft and shoot them down. This should be very troubling, but the Air Force is not taking sufficient steps to reverse this situation.
One sensible move would be to develop low-cost unmanned aircraft that are more survivable in contested air environments than current Predators or Reapers, but not as exquisite as F-22s or F-35s, which is okay because they would be unmanned and therefore commanders could take more risk with them. If the Department could build such an aircraft at very low cost—and here DoD should adhere to the time honored principle of “fly before you buy”—then this could help reverse the current paradigm of ever-dwindling numbers of U.S. assets. Large numbers of these unmanned aircraft could be used to augment manned fighters as “loyal wingmen,” carrying extra missiles into the fight and increasing U.S. numbers. The Navy has recently talked about using unmanned aircraft in an air-to-air role, but so far this isn’t an area the Air Force is pursuing. The Air Force will no doubt claim that all of its modernization funds are tied up in the long-range bomber and the F-35, but the Air Force did find $15 million in FY2015 to begin development of a sixth generation fighter as part of its Next Generation Air Dominance program. This suggests that the Air Force doesn’t understand the fundamental problem it faces, which isn’t about quality but about quantity.
While the Navy is at least having a debate on the future of unmanned naval aviation, it isn’t clear that the Air Force even has a plan. The Air Force has been saying for months that release of the new remotely piloted aircraft vector is imminent. It is possible that it will contain some pleasant surprises, but the fact that the Air Force still insists on referring to unmanned aircraft as “remotely piloted” suggests it won’t.
The Army doesn’t get a pass on innovation either. While it has been saying good things recently about the role of robotics in its future force, the budget needs to match the rhetoric. Key areas for investment are unmanned aircraft, robotic appliqué kits for ground vehicles, and exoskeletons.
One particularly innovative approach is the Army’s plan to replace its Kiowa helicopter fleet with unmanned RQ-7 Shadows and MQ-1C Gray Eagles for forward reconnaissance. Internal pre-decisional documents leaked in January showed a cut of nearly $400 million to the Army’s Shadow program over the next five years, but smarter heads must have prevailed because Shadow is funded in the budget.
Other Army unmanned investments show a mixed picture. Small unmanned ground vehicles like those that have been useful in defusing bombs over the last decade are well-funded. Exoskeletons and robotic appliqué kits that could allow the Army to field thousands of robotic vehicles at a very low cost using existing platforms are missing in the budget, however.
One of the dirty secrets of the U.S. defense establishment is that dependence on space is a major Achilles heel for the U.S. military and nobody knows what to do about it. The U.S. military depends on satellites for communications as well as the position, navigation, and timing functions enabled by GPS. A number of countries are developing a range of anti-satellite weapons that could damage, disrupt, or destroy vulnerable satellites. Putting more satellites in orbit is generally a losing proposition because satellites are expensive and additional missiles to shoot them down are cheap. The U.S. needs a new approach.
There are no easy solutions, but one potential mitigating step is to build a network of high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft that can act as pseudo-satellites, or “pseudolites,” to form a backup airborne layer for communications and navigation. An airborne layer couldn’t replace satellites entirely, and wouldn’t necessarily be cheap, but some kind of backup layer is absolutely critical if satellites were to be disrupted. A functional aerial layer could also help reduce the attractiveness of U.S. satellites as a potential target for an adversary, since taking satellites out would no longer be crippling to the United States. A key piece of this network is the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), which has been fighting an uphill battle for funding. Even though BACN has already been tested and proven on the Global Hawk, it wasn’t funded in the budget.
Who hates innovation?
DoD’s budget paints a mixed picture of whether the Department is actually following through on the QDR’s call for innovation. On the one hand, high-level programs that rise to the Secretary’s attention like the long-range bomber are well-funded. Lower visibility programs are often not, however.
It’s worth pointing out that no one thinks being innovative is a bad idea, but whether DoD actually makes investments in these and other key areas comes down to priorities. Lean budgets are especially tough on new programs as bureaucratic stakeholders protect existing projects. It isn’t that anyone will argue the DoD shouldn’t do these things, but rather that it can’t afford the luxury of these investments. The problem is that Secretary Hagel was right when he said that
…the development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations … means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.
In this future, the real problem is not that DoD can’t afford to make these investments, but that it can’t afford not to.
Paul Scharre is Fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.
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