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The Advent Of The UAV Era

By Chloe Thompson
Defense Dossier
November 21, 2017

Though Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones) are now an essential part of the U.S. national security toolkit, military views of UAVs were less than enthusiastic when the technology first emerged. In the early days of drones, the most prominent roadblocks to widespread adoption by the armed forces were inconsistency in performance, spiking costs, and, perhaps more importantly, a significant lack of interest on the part of military leaders, who could not quite envision a tactical use for the technology and thus had little incentive to push for the investment that such systems required. Today, by contrast, UAVs are an accepted, even vital, part of military and intelligence operations.

UAVs were first utilized during the Second World War, when the Third Reich employed "Buzz Bombs" in 1944 over Belgium, England, and France, killing 10,000 civilians.[1] Thereafter, in 1952, the U.S. Army built its first reconnaissance drone, and by the 1960s the United States was flying "Firebees" over North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union.[2] Yet, despite these early instances, widespread UAV use came about only slowly, and with great difficulty.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was an early pioneer in the development of UAVs. Its interests initially focused on small tactical drones.[3] Once the technology developed enough to be reliable, however, companies faced ever-increasing "requirements creep," in which the army tried to apply manned aircraft requirements to UAVs, thus leading to an ongoing need to improve the technology.[4] But, because no single military branch was solely interested in or responsible for the development of UAV technology, attempts to innovate with UAVs were diffuse and disorganized. This changed in 1988, when Congress consolidated the UAV programs of the various military services into a joint project office, which eventually led to steadier progress in drone technology.[5]

In addition, a novel development process called the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) was created within the Office of Secretary of Defense to take prototype UAV systems from initial implementation and testing to operational use in actual combat.[6] The goal was to speed up the development process of new military technologies and to involve military leaders more fully in the construction of weapons before the technology was finalized. This was a necessary development, because to many policymakers and military leaders UAVs seemed an expensive "unknown" that did not fit neatly into the military's complex and often rigid structures for procurement and operations. As a result, UAVs did not have committed advocates within the bureaucracy.[7] The ACTD process proved vital for the integration of UAVs into military operations, because it helped military leaders to see for themselves the potential benefits of remotely piloted aircraft for both combat situations and reconnaissance.

The first use of UAVs in a combat situation under the ACTD program occurred in Bosnia in 1995.[8] Subsequently, during President George W. Bush's administration, the use of drones expanded dramatically. During his time in office, President Bush authorized 48 strikes in Pakistan and one strike in Yemen as part of the global war on terrorism.[9] President Obama, who made UAV technology a cornerstone of his national security policy,[10] expanded the covert use of armed drones still further, authorizing over 500 drone strikes throughout his two terms in office.[11]

The rise of UAV technology has had significant impact on U.S. strategic thinking. Over time, the American military - propelled in part by the premium placed by Americans on the value of individual lives - has gravitated to a strategy that focuses on winning wars through greater technical prowess and better-trained troops.[12] UAVs fit this American way of war well; they are cost-effective and easy to produce, and can in many circumstances take the place of human soldiers altogether.

Of course, the United States is not the only actor to embrace the use of drones in military conflict. Countries such as Russia, China and Iran[13] continue to develop UAV programs of their own, ensuring that U.S. strategic thinking will need to include defenses against such capabilities. Even the Islamic State terrorist group has adopted the use of "suicide drones" in place of actual suicide bombers as a means of conserving manpower, as well as utilizing UAVs to drop explosives on enemy troops.[14] And as commercially available drones become more and more advanced, such actors can be expected to find even greater uses for them.[15]

For America, meanwhile, the use of drones carries with it moral, legal and psychological challenges. President Obama indicated during his time in office that his administration authorized drone strikes "only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is... near certainty of no civilian casualties."[16] Doubts as to the veracity of that claim persist, in part because independent estimates suggest civilian deaths are far from uncommon in drone strikes.[17]

Today, drone strikes are carried out in one of two broad programs. The first involves strikes on high-value targets, i.e., specific known individuals. The second type of strike is called a signature strike, in which people are targeted not because they are known threats, but rather because they exhibit a set of behaviors that seem to indicate affiliation with a terrorist group.[18] This second type of strike has been criticized by human rights groups because it is much more likely to lead to civilian casualties, although drone strikes on average cause fewer casualties than strikes by manned aircraft.[19]

The success of these efforts, and the growing acceptance of drone warfare among military leaders, suggests an expanded role for UAVs in the future. Currently, the capabilities of most significant interest and study are increased independence (automation), and increased intelligence capabilities.

Scientists are now pursuing autonomy along two separate tracks: independence of action, and complexity of action. Independence of action is the degree to which a drone can behave on its own without oversight from a handler. Complexity of action is the level of difficulty in completing a task. For example, a UAV that can fly in a circle for hours with no input would be entirely autonomous, but of relatively limited utility.[20]

Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter favored near-total automation for UAVs, although stopping shy of permitting the ability to independently launch lethal strikes.[21] These capabilities have progressed; in a concrete example of the current, advanced state of UAV automation, in 2016 an F-16 drone demonstrated autonomous evasive maneuvers during an exercise.[22] Furthermore, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), in concert with the Air Force Research Laboratory, is now working on battle management software that relies on a human pilot controlling a lead vehicle while systems using artificial intelligence control secondary vehicles. These artificially intelligent systems are expected to be able to act according to mission priorities in the absence of direct human supervision.[23]

Some potential drone innovations on the horizon seem to come straight from science fiction. For example, at Arizona State University, the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control lab is attempting to harness brain waves, enabling a single pilot to control multiple UAVs at one time. BAE Systems, meanwhile, is exploring development of a "chemputer" that functions a bit like a 3-D printer, and is intended to grow drones or other military hardware at the molecular level.[24] If such an innovation were to succeed, UAVs could be made more cheaply and more quickly, and could possibly speed research on new systems.

Other initiatives show similar promise. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley and at Singapore's Nanyang University have developed a process to control the motor functions of large beetles through the provision of electric current to their brains.[25] Such technology may provide a partially organic alternative to small spy UAVs. The beetles, which are more nimble than their wholly mechanical counterparts, could be used in reconnaissance and intelligence operations.

Finally, the continually expanding capabilities of artificial intelligence could lead to the development of true Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) that do not require a human operator at all.

While it's difficult to predict exactly what UAVs will be capable of in the decades ahead, current research is trending in the direction of greater autonomy and more comprehensive surveillance capabilities. One thing, however, already seems certain; once an obscure technology, UAVs are now a cornerstone of U.S. defense capabilities, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Chloe Thompson is a Research Fellow and Program Officer at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

[1] Ed Darack, "
A Brief History of Unmanned Aircraft," Air & Space, May 17, 2011.
[2] Richard Harrison, Caitlin Lenzner-White, and Chloe Thompson, "
Drones," American Foreign Policy Council Strategic Primer, Spring 2016.
[3] Author's interview with Richard H. Van Atta, May 26, 2017.
[4] William B. Bonvillian and Charles Weiss, Technological Innovation in Legacy Sectors (Oxford University Press, 2015), 128.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibidem.
[7] Richard H. Van Atta et al, Transformation and Transition: DARPA's role in Fostering an Emerging Revolution in Military Affairs, Volume 2 - Detailed Assessments (Institute for Defense Analyses, 2003), VI-25.
[8] Arthur Holland Michel, "
Drones in Bosnia," Center for the Study of the Drone, June 7, 2013.
[9] Peter L. Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg, Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 13.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Dan de Luce, "
Obama's Drone Policy Gets an 'F,'" Foreign Policy, February 23, 2016.
[12] Sydney J Freedberg Jr., "
Marines Seek to Outnumber Enemies with Robots," Breaking Defense, October 25, 2016.
[13] Harrison, Lenzner-White, and Thompson, "Drones."
[14] Ben Kesling, "
Islamic State Drones Terrorize Iraqi Forces as Mosul Battle Rages," Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2017.
[15] See, for example, Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt, "
Pentagon Confronts a New Threat from ISIS: Exploding Drones," New York Times, October 11, 2016.
[16] Matt Peterson, "
Is Obama's Drone War Moral?" The Atlantic, August 18, 2016.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Bergen and Rothenberg, Drone Wars, 46.
[19] Daniel Byman, "
Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington's Weapon of Choice," Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2013.
[20] Author's interview with Van Atta.
[21] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. and Colin Clark, "
Killer Robots? 'Never,' Defense Secretary Carter Says," Breaking Defense, September 15, 2016.
[22] Zack Rosenberg, "
Military Drones Can Now Deal With Threats on Their Own," Air & Space, April 27, 2017.
[23] Daniel Parry, "
NRL's UAV 'Wingman' Technology Used in Air Combat Trials," America's Navy, February 22, 2017.
[24] June Javelosa, "
Scientists Look Into 'Growing' Drones Using 'Chemputer,'" Futurism, July 6, 2016.
[25] Jason Daley, "
Researchers Make Cyborg Beetles a Reality,", April 1, 2016.

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