History suggests that drones and humans are complementary rather than supplementary…
In a recent podcast at The Loopcast, titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Drones but Were Too Afraid to Ask,” Matt (aka the “Drunken Predator Drone”) and Kelsey Artherton are hosted by Sina to discuss unmanned vehicles. Most of their discussion revolved around the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more colloquially termed in a larger scope regardless of domain of operation as “drones.” It is a good (and funny) discussion, and I do recommend you give it a listen if you have an interest in drones because few know more about them than these guys. However, for much of it (or at least the first 39 minutes of the podcast where they focus on aerial drones) dances around a topic that, I believe, gets too much attention: the supplementary function (replacement) of manned vehicles by unmanned vehicles.
This is not to say that Kelsey and Matt do not acknowledge that there are some complementary aspects of drones; but on the balance, these conversations tend to float towards the over-wrought thought that there is drama in the replacement of manned aircraft with unmanned aircraft at the short shrift of how they might be best employed together, in complement. Even more recently, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) published a report titled “2oYY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age,” that also largely pays only brief lip service to the complementary aspects of drones.
What follows, then, is a brief discussion as to why drones will not be replacing humans in warfare. Rather, despite all the hype (and the possible suspicion of my motives as a pilot), a general history of weaponry suggests that technological/tactical tools develop in a punctuated evolutionary manner and become truly effective when they complement other weapons. Specifically, in this case, I am proposing that future unmanned vehicles will complement manned vehicles as weapons.
To properly frame this discussion, first, we must understand the pattern of weaponry complement thus far. So far, for my money, no one has discussed this better than Dr. Jonathan House, in his workCombined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century:
The concept of combined arms in ground combat has existed for centuries, but the nature of that combination and the organizational level at which it occurred have varied greatly…. The concern of commanders has gone from coordinating the separate actions of separate arms, to achieving greater cooperation among those arms, to finally combining their actions to maximize the effect of all components of an armed force…. No matter how powerful a single arm—tanks, attack helicopters, or whatever—may be, that arm has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as its counterpart in the opposing army. As a practical matter, therefore, a carefully adjusted mixture of different weapons will almost always prove superior to a single type of weapon.
House’s work, throughout, addresses numerous incidents of parochialism in applying weapons. There is constant struggle in what can typically be over-simplified as “turf battles” (in a nod of recognition towards what this discussion has historically been considered as, and how the missions and roles of drones will most likely be discussed in the future). Yet, despite all the reasons for rushing towards buzzwords like synergy, there are still important reasons for the segregation of specialized components and arms, as House suggests:
Historical conservatism and unit identity are not the only reasons for segregating the combat arms in this manner. In garrison, it is more efficient to concentrate all vehicles and weapons of one type in a single unit for ease of repair and maintenance. Similarly, individual soldiers or small crews with the same duties and weapons can be trained more effectively if they are concentrated in a single unit. In any event, no permanent combined arms organization, however well trained, would be equally prepared to deal with all different circumstances…. Every army must tailor its forces to the specific situation.
While these are some practical and very useful reasons for specialization, for whatever reason, House fails to identify the most critical reason for the segregation of arms into varying forms of disparate groups: their inherent and taxonomic philosophies of employment. This must also be considered especially from the various outlook of those who bear such arms, and their perceptions as to how it can be most effectively used within the natural constraints that the domain of employment (land, sea, air, space, and cyber) dictates to them. So while these tools of conflict must be used in a complementary fashion to achieve success, some unique sense of identity will and must still be maintained in each case.
Here we can find that it would seem logically normal, rather than insular, to employ drones in a complementary yet varied manner. For example, the airman sometimes finds the soldier’s usage of drones to sometimes be pedantically focused over the next hill, while equally and in contrast, the soldier sometimes may not equally appreciate the airman’s usage of the drone to their larger span of collection tasks. In truth, they’re both correct, which professionals learn appreciation of through joint interactions, if not from considering the various and simultaneous levels of context that must be applied to any use of force. To be absolutely clear, neither are wrong in the least despite the recent efforts of some to apply melodrama to it, but we should be clear-eyed about how these philosophies are different and that is a very good thing. Fortunately, as a result of the benevolent lessons of complementary hard knocks (as outlined in the 20th Century by House, which is a smaller subset of a larger body of knowledge) for professional learners of history, such decisions are elevated to a point where the effects of a joint force are apportioned by boards and commanders against the whole balance of priorities and demands. And those areas where the balance is deemed crucial, yet typically under-apportioned, there are reasonable channels available for the procurement of such critical needs.
These aspects considered rightly, we can then understand why so much analysis tends to apply the technological-tactical aspects of weaponry rather narrowly, as a replacement for another, whether we are talking about our bare hands, rocks, swords, spears, longbows, tanks, airplanes, or even drones. Coming full circle, we see that our inclination is for revolutionary consideration of these weapons as replacements for other weapons in supplement, when in reality, what we are observing is more punctuated and merely evolutionary complement. To quote House, again, in an effort to prescribe what our awareness of complement should really look like:
First, the combined arms concept is the basic idea that different combat arms and weapons systems must be used in concert to maximize the survival and combat effectiveness of the others…. A second meaning of combined arms is combined arms organization, the command and communications structure that brings the different weapons together for combat…. Third, combined arms tactics and operations are the actual roles performed and techniques applied by these different arms and weapons in supporting one another in battle…. [Where,] supplementary combined arms increase the effect of one weapons system or arm by adding the similar effects of other weapons and arms…. Complementary combined arms, by contrast, combine different effects or characteristics, so that together they pose a more complicated threat, a dilemma for the enemy.
While Matt and Kelsey, along with CNAS, dance around this idea of complement, and while they briefly mention some things they’ve read on this idea, the clear preference is to discuss drones as a replacement for humans, when in reality the balance of history is leaning against such a thought. I think that’s because not enough has yet been written about applying drones in complement. Some of this may be as result of the news we’ve all seen, especially in light of the “drone campaigns” we read about with regularity in various spots all over the world. While placing aside the varied yet valid concerns for such campaigns, we tend to understand them to be described merely as a replacement for human action rather than a complement of human action. Further, this is not just from the perspective of the “shooter.” Rather, the fusion of intelligence and the difficulty of judgment within the limited contextual cues available (from all forms of intelligence, including HUMINT) places a complete consideration of how the drone strike as targeted killing complements the human element involved to some degree. We often forget, that in any conflict, the fog of intelligence is always going to require judgment, coup d’oeil — and this is even so with drones, that much is tragically apparent as it always is.
All that said, I think there have been some authors who have described the use of drones insightfully in a complementary manner, and I’d like to highlight their work:
- My esteemed classmate and long-time friend David Blair, and his colleague Nick Helms, have written an excellent article highlighting the complementary aspects of drones for Air and Space Power Journal titled, “The Swarm, the Cloud, and the Importance of Getting There First: What’s at Stake in the Remote Aviation Culture Debate.”
- Friend of this journal, Sam LaGrone, and his colleague Dave Majumdar, over at United States Naval Institute (USNI) News have written an article that describes the complementary ways the UCLASS drone concept could work with (as opposed to the supplement or replacement of) E-2D Hawkeyes, F/A-18 Hornets, and F-35C Lightening IIs titled, “Navy: UCLASS will be Stealthy and ‘Tomcat Size.’”
- Another friend of this journal, Matthew Hipple, in his upcoming article for USNI’s February Proceedings, “Bring on the Countermeasure Drones” also addresses the complementary “come-as-you-are” aspect of utilizing drones, but with an eye upon technological-tactical cycles (which equally involves questions of organization and doctrine).
- Next, Benjamin “B.J.” Armstrong, in his Armed Forces Journal article titled, “Unmanned Naval Warfare: Retrospect & Prospect,” points out a few historical cases both in antiquity and in more modern times of how the development of complementary drones has been evolutionary.
- Finally, the Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Ray Mabus, has the correct sense of manned and unmanned vehicle complement at War on the Rocks in his article titled, “Future Platforms: Unmanned Naval Operations.” “The future of unmanned systems in the Navy and Marine Corps,” which Mabus leads, “is focused on incorporating our people on manned platforms with unmanned systems to create an integrated force.”
Proverbially speaking, there is nothing new under the sun, and yes that even applies to drones. House suggests the general pattern towards complement:
In [every] case, a three-stage pattern of organizational behavior appears.First, the army cannot find an organizational or doctrinal home for the new weapon. As a result, commanders tend to view the new technology as a specialized adjunct, useful only under certain conditions where the existing combination of arms and services has proved inadequate. Next, a group of enthusiasts seeks to make the new weapon into its own separate combat arm, in the process asserting exaggerated claims about its ability to achieve victory on its own, or perhaps with only one other existing combat arm. Because the enemy army is also having difficulty adjusting, the new weapon may, in fact, achieve a brief success as an independent arm. Ultimately, however, each side develops countermeasures to reduce and limit its effectiveness. Thereafter, the new weapon can no longer achieve victory by itself but must become a full-fledged member of the combined arms team. Within this expanded team, professional soldiers eventually reach a doctrinal solution, a shared concept of how to integrate the new weapon into the complementary effects of the other arms and services.
Whether you call them drones, remotely piloted vehicles, or unmanned vehicles, they’re all just tools of warfare. And forgive the banality of the point, but tools of warfare are used by humans who seek to maximize violence against their adversary, and that requires complement rather than replacement. Most importantly, we should also recall that in non-linear positive-sum games, as combat is exhibited as, the interaction of people and weaponry leads to a cumulative advantage if used asymmetrically. As such, the vast balance of history teaches us that we will continue to perceive technological/tactical cycles as something of a progression of coordination (synchronization), to cooperation (integration), and then ultimately, to a combination for strategic effect (convergence). We’ve only just begun to conceive of drones in the proper terms of complement, and it is past time to do so.
Richard (Rich) F. Ganske is an officer in the U.S. Air Force and editor at The Strategy Bridge. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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