Analysts: Pentagon Lacks Future Vision for Unmanned Aircraft

By Sandra I. Erwin

Congressional appropriators worried in 2003 that the Pentagon was mindlessly spending money on unmanned aircraft. They ordered the Defense Department to submit an "unmanned air systems roadmap" to guide future investments.

There was growing enthusiasm for UAS, but lawmakers fretted that there was "no clear path toward the future,"wrote congressional analyst Jeremiah Gertler.

More than a decade later, the Pentagon is again being slammed for not having a coherent plan for how to transition from the current generation of unmanned air vehicles to one better equipped to cope with enemy threats. Experts also fault the Obama administration for stunting innovation in the UAV industry. Secretive White House policies about the use of drone strikes in military operations and restrictions on drone sales to U.S. allies are impeding technological advances and possibly jeopardizing U.S. dominance in this field, analysts said.

More than 70 countries are developing some flavor of UAVs. "You know which country is not doing quite as much? The United States of America," Gertler, a specialist in military aviation at the Congressional Research Service, said May 8.

The United States consciously is taking a "strategic pause" in UAV development, he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A procurement holiday is warranted after a decade-long buildup. The Pentagon now has a large fleet of more than 11,000 UAVs, including 450 that can carry armaments. "We have a surplus on hand," Gertler said. But he faults the Defense Department for not investing in the next wave of technology.

Future drones will have to be faster and stealthier to be able to fly in hostile areas. The Defense Department does not appear to have a plan for how to build a more advanced generation of UAVs, said Gertler. Other countries, meanwhile, are catching up to U.S. technology. "Electronic warfare and network attacks are becoming more relevant tools to disrupt UAVs," he added.

In a new study, CSIS calls on the administration to take action to ensure the United States stays on the cutting edge of UAV technology. "While plans are moving ahead on U.S. domestic technical and safety issues through the Federal Aviation Administration, the federal government has not publicly articulated a vision for what the development and spread of this technology means in strategic terms for our nation," said the study, titled, "Sustaining the U.S. Lead in Unmanned Systems: Military and Homeland Considerations through 2025."

Tactical and operational drone expertise is outpacing strategy and policy, said the study. The United States is way ahead of any other country in unmanned systems technology, "even in the midst of a procurement holiday," said the study. "But maintaining this lead over the next decade and beyond will require policy decisions and strategy development."

Progress in U.S. unmanned vehicle technology is stalled, said CSIS, partly because armed drones are maligned as unethical weapons. The Obama administration could help counter the negative PR by declassifying and releasing civilian casualty figures from UAS strikes. It also should provide apples-to-apples comparison between strikes performed by drones and those using traditional manned air assets, the study said. “The lack of transparency by the United States has allowed others to shape the narrative.”

The U.S. military, meanwhile, worries about other countries’ use of UAVs. A recent deal by Saudi Arabia to purchase a Chinese medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle is seen as a bellwether for where the industry is headed, analysts said. The technology to build air vehicles is widely available, although few countries have the infrastructure and expertise to deploy drones on a global scale.

Today, only the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, and China operate armed UAS, but at least 18 countries are developing their own production capacity and dozens more are seeking to acquire them, CSIS reported.

Current U.S. arms-control policy seeks to shield UAV technology from getting to enemy hands, but experts question whether tight export restrictions might be counterproductive.

Drone sales to foreign nations are regulated under the Arms Export Control Act, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the Missile Technology Control Regime. Although sales should be controlled, CSIS analysts argued, the United States might be going too far. Curbing U.S. exports, they believe, will create a vacuum in the drone market for other nations to fill. To date, the United States has only exported armed UAS to the United Kingdom.

The United States should export armed UAS to "all trusted allies and partners," the study said. "Continued indecision by the United States regarding export of this technology will not prevent the spread of these systems, but it will deny the ability of the United States to ensure interoperability and encourage responsible use among allies."

Lynn E. Davis, a weapons proliferation expert and analyst at the RAND Corp., said there is enough flexibility within the missile technology control treaty to sell unmanned systems to allies. Armed drones will proliferate, she said, but "they are not going to create the same dangers that we saw with the proliferation of nuclear weapons or even long range missiles. It's important to see that distinction," she said. "In my mind, these systems are more like conventional aircraft. ... Exports ought to be handled like conventional aircraft."

Export policies are misguided because they assume the military has a monopoly on UAS technology, said Michael Horowitz, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He noted that Google purchased a dozen robotics companies over the past 16 months, some of which are being pulled out of the defense sector. "If Google thinks the U.S. defense budget is such small potatoes that it's worth redeploying their robotics engineers to work on commercial apps, what does that say about what the size of the commercial market is likely to look like?" he asked. "This is a classic example of technology that will spread very far.”

"The U.S. needs to lean a bit further forward in our UAV export policy within the confines of MTCR," he said. "It's possible for the United States to design a responsible export policy that allows more sales to our allies." The reality is that if they can't buy the technology from the United States, they will get it elsewhere, said Horowitz. "We'd like to think these are unique and special snowflakes." If the goal is to promote responsible usage of this technology, he said, "We have a better chance of doing that by opening up exports."

Innovation in U.S. drone technology is critical, he said. “Continuing to push the envelope in an era of fiscal austerity will be difficult but is something the U.S. needs to do,” he said. The ongoing controversy over the Navy’s carrier-based drone is a case in point. The House Armed Services Committee voted to hold up funding for the Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system (UCLASS) program out of concern the military is spending money on current generation technology rather than investing in stealthy, more advanced armed drones.

“The debate about UCLASS capabilities in some ways is the canary in the coal mine … and shows the hesitation that the U.S. military has demonstrated when it comes to investing in next generation robotics,” said Horowitz.

The congressional language indicates “strong HASC interest in unmanned systems technology as a strategic future capability, and a growing sense that the Department of Defense is not adequately maturing it under current acquisition strategy and budget,” noted Samuel J. Brannen, co-author of the CSIS study.

The seapower subcommittee also called for the Pentagon to create a new joint-service office that focuses on UAS research, development and engineering. This organization would report directly to the deputy secretary of defense.

Col. Kenneth Callahan, director of the Air Force remotely piloted aircraft capabilities division, said the military is weighing how best to invest UAV dollars. “We are thinking hard about how we want to use these systems and how we want to spend our time and money,” he said. “That thinking is where we are today. Hopefully we get that right.”

The Air Force is preparing to contend with enemy UAVs, he said. It also is studying the implications of drone technology proliferation. At the Air Force Academy, senior level engineering classes require cadets to build armed drones with off-the-shelf components, fly them to a target and drop a bomb within one-meter accuracy.

Topics: International, Robotics, Armed Robots, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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