Home Editor's Picks The Future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – Part 1

The Future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – Part 1

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By LT Col. Mike Fowler
Assistant Professor of Military and Strategic Studies
United States Air Force Academy

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.

The following is part one of a peer-reviewed journal article that first appeared at Global Securities and Intelligence Studies.

Contemporary projections of massive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) proliferation have become commonplace, with some extreme forecasts of a gloomy Armageddon of a world run by robots.

These predictions of widespread adoption of UAVs for all military and law enforcement tasks portend a dynamic shift in the very character of war. Yet, these predictions tend to be over simplistic, ignoring the major obstacles to widespread adoption. This article uses innovation theory to critically analyze the likely future of UAVs using a framework of expected benefits and costs of adoption across core air force missions: air superiority; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control (C2).

While UAVs will certainly take on an expanded role in warfare, predictions of universal military adoption of UAVs are overzealous because they fail to incorporate the total costs associated with adoption of new technology for a large organization.

In February 2014, a conference at The Pentagon brought together academics, defense contractors, and military practitioners to discuss the future of small UAVs. Many of the attendees had an unhampered enthusiasm for the future of UAVs. On the commercial side, their thoughts paralleled Lev Grossman’s predictions for UAVs: “Police departments will use them to study crime scenes. Farmers will use them to watch their fields. Builders will use them to survey construction sites. Hollywood will use them to make movies.”

These commercial predictions largely focus on technological early adopters who will use UAVs simply because they exist and are economically feasible. Economic feasibility was largely driven by forecasts, like Grossman’s, that $50 and a smartphone will buy you a complete UAV system. However, the economic feasibility argument relies on the presumptive logic that because a technology is (or will be) developed and could fulfill a function, it will be an effective and efficient tool for that function.

On the military side, economic feasibility propelled debates on the potential for widespread adoption of UAVs. Interestingly, there was a divergence between policy-centric forecasters and the mainstream scholarly discourse. Policy forecasters focused on the adoption of UAVs for additional tasks while the academic community analyzed the proliferation across countries.

For example, defense forecasters argue that miniature UAVs will be used to “swarm” the enemy in order to defeat complex networks such as an adversary’s air defense system. United States Air Force policy projects that UAVs will eventually conduct every core air-power mission including command and control, airlift, air refueling, aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue, air and missile defense, and electronic warfare. There is little scholarly debate on whether or not these missions are appropriate for a UAV. Instead, the current scholarly debates about the future of UAVs are fixated on the potential proliferation of armed UAVs to additional countries. To an extent, this fixation is driven by ethical and legal concerns that are largely not applicable to unarmed UAVs.

This study begins by applying military innovation theories to the development of UAVs. After a brief review of current UAV capabilities and limitations, the core of the study is an analysis of the potential use of UAVs for future missions including air to air; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); mobility; strike; and command and control (C2). While the analysis for potential future use is valid for all UAV programs across the globe, it is most applicable to the USAF since it has the most developed and best funded program and will, therefore, most likely be the first to test future concepts.

Innovation Theory and UAVs

Military innovation theory provides a framework to empirically analyze the potential adoption of UAVs for additional missions or by additional military forces. The framework starts with the identification of key factors that enable or constrain the adoption of military technologies. Despite the advantages of military innovations, they are not automatically adopted by other organizations or militaries.

Organizational adoption is constrained partly by finances and partly by organizational culture. Organizations must adapt their doctrine and get leadership buy-in. Military leadership has a significant impact on technology adaptation because leaders influence promotions and can protect junior officer innovators. General H.R. McMaster criticizes that many military leaders are overly fixated upon UAVs and the “widely accepted yet fundamentally flawed conception of future war: the belief that surveillance, communications and information technologies would deliver ‘dominant battlespace knowledge.’”

Some leaders may be influenced by the desire for prestige and maintaining the appearance of being on the leading edge of technology. Of course, military innovation is not only controlled by military leadership. Civilian overseers can also impose adaptation to overcome the conservative influences of military tradition. It was only after the success of the Central Intelligence Agency’s armed UAVs that the Air Force decided to adopt the innovation. Arguably, the innovation leader is more likely to be effective if they can effectively articulate the strategic necessity of technology.

UAV advantages – such as long loiter time and low political risk – make them ideal to counter terrorism and for sensitive missions such as patrolling disputed territory. The reduced political risk enables countries to consider military options that were not feasible with other weapons systems.

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