My first in-the-flesh experience with drones came on a hot night in June of 2006 on an airfield tarmac in Taji, Iraq. Having exited a large CH47 Chinook transport helicopter and now waiting for a bus to take me and fellow soldiers to billeting, a loud, lumbering drone flew overhead at a height of about 50 feet off the ground. It sounded like a lawnmower was flying overhead. This was not a particularly sophisticated piece of equipment, but it was suited to its role of surveillance and conducting reconnaissance.
In the past seven years the sophistication of drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) if you are in the Air Force – have increased dramatically. On Wednesday, in fact, the Navy successfully conducted a UAV takeoff and landings from the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia.
This was an historic occasion. As Andrew Borene of Robotics Alley told The Business of Robotics: "This landing marks the crossing of a threshold for American military aviation and has strategic importance for national security and energy efficiency through reduced human risk and longer flight times."
But will the Navy's achievement and other advances for ground launched systems change procurement decisions or will bureaucratic inertia act to stifle innovation?
As Borene noted, the key arguments for the increased use of drones by the military are that they don't put human pilots at risk and they have longer loiter times. Opposing arguments claim that they are too unreliable compared to human piloted aircraft and that they may be prone to errors. Other fears posit a day and age of artificial intelligence and self-guided automatons.
The cultures of the pilot communities in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, however, may be the biggest impediment to future innovation and experimentation with this still fairly nascent technology. As Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Spinetta, writing in his service's professional journal Air & Space Power Journal, has argued, the incentive structures of the Air Force's promotion selection system are heavily biased against RPA pilots.
This is vitally important because those future leaders will largely shape the future of the services unless civilian leaders push back hard on such policies – and even then, service leaders and their subordinates can wait out those civilian leaders.
The remotely piloted or directly piloted arguments, in the end, seem to set up a false dichotomy. There will probably always be a need for human pilots directly at the controls of some aircraft. But that doesn't mean that investments and experimentation shouldn't be used to develop advanced remotely piloted aircraft capable of undertaking dangerous missions, such as the suppression of enemy air defense systems or swarming and decoy attacks against future enemy air forces. Such a mixed investment strategy seems to be a prudent approach, particularly in an age of austere defense budgets.
Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.