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P. W. Singer, Tight Budgets, and the Future of Robots

Tight budgets = less robots?
The always interesting P.W. Singer had some interesting things to sayDepartment of Defense Seal  in his article, “U-Turn: Unmanned Systems Could be Casualties of Budget Pressures”  (Armed Forces Journal).  In an era of shrinking budgets, he worries that funding for unmanned systems will suffer.

“As the Pentagon wrestles with declining overall budget numbers, the new becomes more directly threatening to the old. And in bureaucracies, the old is not only more established, but is often at an advantage in any battle.”

As evidence of his concern, he notes that out of the 25 current costliest Pentagon acquisitions programs, “… there isn’t a single U — for ‘unmanned’ — on the list.”

Singer is a well-respected expert, and I don’t want to contradict him…come to think of it, that’s exactly what I want to do. “Pentagon Looks to Double Its Unmanned Air Force (Wired.com), reports “The robot air force will double in just the next nine years. In every other category of warplane, the population is pretty much stable.” Research groups, such as the Teal Group and ABI research are optimistic about Defense spending on unmanned systems. This blog made the same point in “Robots good. People bad.”

Unmanned systems may not have been included in the top costliest acquisitions programs, because they simply don’t cost that much.  After all, their economic value was one of the original attractions.

Out with the new, in with the old

I think Singer’s real worry is that tight budgets will undermine the proper use and integration of unmanned systems. They will become pigeonholed into a few applications, such as counter insurgency, while traditionalists favor older, more proven technologies for a broader range of missions.

“The overall promise of a technology is frequently judged by, and therefore conceptually limited to, the original context in which it was first used, rather than new situations. Secondly, new technology is typically judged by the capabilities and flaws of its first models, rather than where it is clearly headed.”

He cites Gatling guns and tanks of examples of technologies that were slow to be adopted by the military.  “…the machine gun didn’t easily make the next leap that unmanned systems face today, of being integrated into the overall force for the full range of traditional missions.”

Innovative applications for unmanned systems

There is some evidence that the military is integrating unmanned systems into its overall forces for roles beyond their traditional missions of ISR and counter-insurgency.  US Drones vs China (Diplomat.com) describes how the US Navy is considering using Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) to counter the much discussed Chinese carrier-killing DF-21D ballistic missile.  The next generation Navy fighter, the F-35C, simply doesn’t have the combat radius to overcome the DF-21D’s possible 2000 mile range.   This could severely limit the effectiveness of our carrier fleet to strike targets.  Deploying UCAVs with long ranges on aircraft carriers is a good example of matching the true capabilities of unmanned systems to a perceived need.

To be fair, Singer notes that there is “…resistance among some in Naval Air Systems Command to changing from the proven human skill at carrier deck landings.” Still, the fact that someone in the Navy is contemplating non-traditional roles for unmanned systems is a positive sign.

Tight budgets = MORE robots?

There is even a real possibility that diminishing budgets will produce the opposite effect of Singers predictions. Instead of being sidelined, new, immature technologies will be rushed into deployment before they’re ready, or used for applications that are inappropriate.

Witness the late, lamented Future Combat Systems. In an era of shrinking manpower, many people thought network-centric warfare would act as a force multiplier for the technologically superior US. However, while billions of dollars were spent, fundamental problems, such as interoperability, were never solved.

Furthermore, even when it performed well, network-centric warfare was not the hi-tech panacea that its proponents thought it would be.  It did fine in the actual invasion of Iraq, but it failed in the early years of occupation and rebuilding (How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic” Wired.com).

It’s possible that unmanned systems will go through a similar phase with robots being proposed as a solution to every problem.  As the old saying goes, when you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

Not as cheap as we think

As Singer warned, we need to be careful not to judge current and future generations of unmanned systems by the “capabilities and flaws of its first models.”  However, this not only means expanding our perception of their capabilities, but also adjusting our attitudes about their benefits.  For example, one reason for unmanned systems’ popularity is their ability to perform missions more cheaply than their manned counterparts.  Read the following quote from Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London:

“The other element of the UAV side in the ISR arena is that people look at a UAV and think, unmanned, surely it won’t cost as much. The UAV actually just shifts to some extent, where the cost comes, in terms of the number of support people, pilots required actually to fly the air vehicle from a ground station, and then the imagery exploitation and analysis teams who run to serious numbers of personnel, obviously deriving great value, in military terms, from these things. But the, kind of, initial notion that these things were going to be cheap doesn’t actually turn out to be necessarily correct.”  (Non-traditional Airborne ISR Makes the Leap from Unconventional to Conventional Warfare Defense. IQ)

Barrie also points out that ISR applications are being integrated more and more into multi-purposed platforms rather than dedicated ones.  So, unmanned systems performing this mission will become more complex and more expensive. As Barrie states, we may need to alter our attitudes about the economics of unmanned systems.

The right tool for the right job

In some circumstances, the military appears to be taking a realistic approach to the cost and capabilities of unmanned systems.  The Army has announced it that it is deploying flesh-and-blood mules for Afghanistan, rather than the expensive mechanized versions (Army Considers Pack Mules to Move Equipment in Tough Afghan Terrain, Nationaldefense.org).

In one sense, this might be considered a perfect example of Singer’s prediction: economics are displacing a newer technology in favor of a proven, traditional one. On the other hand, the Army realistically understands that the cost-savings benefits of the earlier deployed unmanned systems simply do not apply in this situation; they are judging a new technology, in Singer’s words, NOT solely by its “original context.”

Of course, it is still possible that our leaders will continue to think of unmanned systems as cheap for all applications, even when they are not.  In that case, unmanned systems will eventually earn a place on 25 costliest Pentagon acquisitions programs, not because the military appreciates the true capabilities and limitations of this new technology, but because they don’t.

1 reply
  1. Richard Wagaman
    Richard Wagaman says:

    It is important to understand that robotic and other unmanned system technologies will likely be applied to manned systems in the future. This will be done to save lives and hardware. I remember when auto landing capability was first introduced for carrier operations. The general idea was that it would not be used, but the pliots soon learned that you could catch the “third wire” more often using the auto landing system. This would give you a highly rating for your overall performance–oh, by the way fewer aircraft were damaged on landing.

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