Aerial Drones Face Mounting Pressure From All Directions
It is ironic that despite their demonstrated usefulness and efficacy in multiple roles, even unarmed drones face pressure from entrenched military dogma, budget hawks and legal challenges, experts at a recent conference said.
The U.S. military has a fleet of about 8,000 total UAVs. But public discourse is being driven by the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of about 36 Predators to strike al-Qaida militants in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
That perception could cripple the proliferation of drones in non-offensive roles both inside the military and in commercial settings, he added.
“So you’ve got this challenge where everything from the military use to when people talk about using them on the domestic side, they keep coming back to the image of some kind of counterterrorism strike into Pakistan,” Singer said Feb. 13 at an Association for Unmanned Vehicles International conference in McLean, Va.
“Just as unmanned aerial systems face the public-perception problem, that same kind of perception problem is happening within the senior military leadership. That argument that is being made … that they are not good for anything else, in my opinion, is fundamentally wrong.”
Presumptive CIA chief John Brennan, who was tapped by President Obama to replace David Petraeus as CIA director, faced tough criticism during congressional testimony regarding the agency’s use of drones to target suspected militants, including U.S. citizens.
Missy Cummings, an MIT professor of aeronautics and researcher at the Office of Naval Research, agreed that neither the public, nor senior military officials, are aware of the many current and potential future non-offensive applications of UAVs.
The public is also keenly aware of UAVs capability for aerial surveillance and intelligence gathering, which has caused knee-jerk opposition to their use in domestic airspace. But cameras and missiles are not the only things unmanned aircraft can carry, she said.
“I appreciate what the Predator has done for the unmanned vehicle community, but I’m also a little resentful that everyone, including the public, thinks that ISR is the most important mission, that spying with cameras is the only thing that UAVs can do," she said.
"Meanwhile, the K-MAX … has moved over 2 million pounds of cargo in theater. This is huge. Cargo in the unmanned world is not just revolutionary inside the military, it’s going to revolutionize outside the military, too,” she added.
But funding is scarce for UAV research and development, which is often shortchanged in favor of flashy physics-based systems like the magnetic rail gun or laser programs, said Cummings. Of six innovative naval prototype projects at ONR, only one is focused on autonomy and robotics, she said. The Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System is also the smallest at $100 million of annual funding.
“I see a problem,” she said. “There’s only one ONR program looking at autonomy even when autonomy and cybersecurity are two of the fastest-growing areas even in a downsizing budget. I think it’s a crime. … We need more vocal advocates.”
The Defense Department spends about $4 billion a year on unmanned systems, the vast majority of which goes to aerial vehicles, said Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare for the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. The return on that investment has been “very high quality,” he said.
But there was a 25 percent reduction to the UAV topline between fiscal year 2012 and the current fiscal year, he said. He expects that when the defense budget for fiscal 2014 is codified, it will include a similar cut.
Part of the problem is that while drones have given the military significant added capability, none of the aircraft have replaced existing manned platforms that are competing for funding, he said.
“All the capability we’ve added has been additive,” he said. “None of them have replaced a single established program.”
Tension between old and new technologies is a common symptom of the U.S. military adopting new technology, Singer said. He likened it to the 1920s, when the military struggled to integrate manned aviation, which like drone technology now, was then in its infancy. To survive and thrive, UAV technologies need advocates like Adm. William Moffett, who in the early 20th century lobbied in favor of naval aviation and the expansion of the nascent aircraft carrier fleet, he said.
“What we have is a battle playing out between old technology and new technology, old programs of record and new research and development,” Singer said.
The Air Force — still dominated by old-school senior officials that favor fighter and bomber pilots over UAV operators — will also have to deal with the cultural ramifications of ascendant drone technology. Last year for the first time the Air Force trained more UAV pilots than bomber and fighter pilots combined. Last week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the creation of a medal for UAV pilots that will rank just below the Bronze Star for valor.
Yet, data shows officers in the UAV community are 15 percent less likely to be promoted, Singer said. Of about 4,500 colonels in the Air Force, only 43 of them are within the UAV community, which the Air Force has rebranded as the Remotely Piloted Aircraft community, or RPA.
“If you’re a young officer right now, on one hand you look at this technology and say ‘this is a booming area that I want to go into,’ but on the other hand you have to question whether this going to be good or bad for your long-term career,” Singer said.
Photo Credit: Air Force