Need to Know provides context and resources to help you get a better understanding of recent developments in the world of drones.
On December 5, President Obama nominated Ash Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as the secretary of defense. Carter began his career in the Pentagon during the 1990s when, as the assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, he was engaged in issues relating to ballistic missile defense and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics between April 2009 and October 2011, Carter served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer at a time when the U.S. was increasing both its military commitment to Afghanistan and the number of drones. In October 2011, Carter was promoted to deputy secretary of defense, a position he held until December 2013.
During the tenures of Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, Ash Carter was influential in finding ways to make the Pentagon more financially efficient. If confirmed, Carter will face a challenging international security environment and a military force that is transitioning away from the lengthy and resource-heavy commitments in Afghanistan. Carter will have to decide whether to make critical investments in emerging technologies like drones and robotics that could shape the composition and force structure of the U.S. military.
A look back at Ash Carter’s career in the Pentagon offers a few hints as to how he will manage the integration of drones into the military. Here is what you need to know:
- On September 14, 2010, Carter released a DoD memo: “Better Buying Power: Guidance for Obtaining Greater Efficiency and Productivity in Defense Spending.” While not strictly relating to any specific unmanned system, the memo nonetheless deeply influences the kinds of systems the military invests in. Critically, Carter ordered that all future acquisitions consider the affordability of the platform as equal in importance to the technical performance. In the “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036” report, Carter’s memo is cited in the introduction as providing “a DoD vision for the continuing development, fielding, and employment of unmanned systems technologies.”
In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Defense Logistics Modernization Conference in April 2010, Carter endorsed the idea of fielding more drones and unmanned aerostats to Afghanistan as a means to providing greater surveillance coverage for U.S. troops. “Every patrol can have a camera looking around, a few blocks around it … Every person of ill will in Kandahar thinks that camera’s looking at them,” Carter said. In terms of efficiency, aerostats could provide the same functionality as UAVs, but without the financial or personnel burdens associated with flying aircraft.
- In September 2010, Carter criticized defense contractor Northrop Grumman for the increasing costs associated with developing the Global Hawk drone, a high altitude, long endurance surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. “Its costs have been growing unacceptably and have to be gotten under control — and will be,” said Carter in an interview with Bloomberg Television. That year, the Institute of Defense Analysis released a report on the root causes of the cost overruns, estimating that the cost per unit increased by around 20% since the Global Hawk program began.
- In a May 2012 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Carter acknowledged that drones played a key role in providing aerial intelligence in Afghanistan. However, he worried that the Pentagon didn’t have a long-term vision of how drones—not just the aircraft, but also the crews—would fit into the future force. He expressed particular concern that the drones would be all but useless in contested airspaces. “There will be things that we built up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are not worth keeping in the force structure because they’ll be outdated or they’re not suited to more contested air environments,” Carter said.
- On November 21, 2012, as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Carter issued DoD Directive 3000.09, a document that established guidelines and responsibilities for the development and use of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems in manned and unmanned vehicles. The directive orders that a commander must be able to “exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.” In other words, for an autonomous system to engage in a lethal or kinetic action, a human must be in the loop. However, the directive allows the military to develop and use non-lethal autonomous systems for up to ten years and permits high-ranking Pentagon officials to overrule the ban on lethal autonomous systems. Read On: “The Law that Applies to Autonomous Weapons Systems,” by Jeffrey S. Thurnher at the American Society for International Law.
Ash Carter published two DoD memos that have already had an impact on the future of drones in the U.S. military. The “Better Buying Power” memo established new guidelines for cutting costs and stemming cost overruns in the development of new platforms. A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyzed 51 of the Pentagon’s 80 acquisition programs and found that drones “experienced greater than average schedule delays with three of six unmanned vehicle programs reporting delays of 3 years or more.” All in all, the GAO estimated that Carter’s reforms saved the U.S. taxpayer $24 billion. If confirmed, Carter can be expected to continue finding ways to cut inefficiencies out of the Pentagon.
Cutting inefficiencies could mean adding more drones and introducing greater autonomy into military platforms and programs. While Directive 3000.09 recognized the potential risks of introducing greater autonomy into manned and unmanned systems, it also opened the door to the continued development and integration of non-lethal semi-autonomous and autonomous systems into the U.S. military. Simply put, a control architecture that has one operator managing several semi-autonomous or autonomous UAVs is more efficient than a two-person team for each aircraft. The U.S. Navy is already experimenting with autonomous systems in ways that are supposed to maximize cost efficiency. Directive 3000.09 remains a pivotal moment in the military’s general trend towards greater autonomy in systems. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Carter follows through on Chuck Hagel’s promise to invest more resources in robotics and autonomous systems.