The growth in our use of unmanned systems has taken place so rapidly that we often forget how far we have come in just a short time. While U.S. forces went into Iraq with only a handful of drones in the air (all of V Corps had just one), by the end of 2008, there were 5,331 unmanned aircraft systems in the American inventory, from vigilant Global Hawks and armed Predators that circle thousands of feet overhead to tiny Ravens that peer over the next city block. A similar explosion happened on the ground, where zero unmanned ground vehicles were used in a tactical sense during the 2003 invasion; by the end of 2008, the overall inventory crossed the 12,000 mark, with the first generation of armed ground robotics arriving that year as well. And notably, these are just the first generation, much like the iPod, already outdated by the time they hit the marketplace and battlespace.
In many ways, the most apt historic parallel to this era may well turn out to be World War I. Back then, strange, exciting new technologies, which had been science fiction a few years earlier, were introduced and then used in greater numbers on the battlefield. They did not really change the fundamentals of the war, and in many ways the technology was balky and fighting remained frustrating. But these early models did prove useful enough that it was clear that the new technologies were not going away and militaries had better figure out how to use them most effectively. It also became clear with such new technologies that their effects would ripple out, reshaping areas that range from the experience of the soldier at war and how the media reports war to asking troubling new questions about the ethics and laws of war. Much the same is just starting to happen with our unmanned systems today.
Beyond these major questions of what happens when the robots of science fiction become political reality over the next few decades, there is a worry that force planners must start to pay attention to doctrine. A concern is that the United States is in a position similar to the British toward the end of World War I. It has developed an exciting new technology, which may well be the future of war. And it is even using the technology in growing quantities (the number of unmanned ground systems in Iraq today is just above the number of tanks the British had at the end of World War I). But the United States does not yet have an overall doctrine on how to use them or how they fit together.
"There is no guiding pattern, no guiding vision," is the assessment of Colonel Robert Bateman, an Army officer in the Pentagon's Net Assessment office tasked with this area. A survey of U.S. military officers taken by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers backs him up. When the officers were questioned about robots' future in war, they identified developing a strategy and doctrine as the third least important aspect to figure out (only ahead of solving inter-Service rivalry and allaying allies' concerns). (1) One commentator described how the military's process of purchasing systems, despite not having fully developed operational plans for them, "smacked of attention deficit disorder." (2)
The issue is not that we are not buying these systems or arguing over who controls them, but rather that we are not dealing with the broader question of where and how it all fits together. As an Army sergeant complained, "Every time we turn around they are putting some new technology in our hands." When his unit in Iraq was given a Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), no one instructed them on how, when, or where best to use it, or how it integrated into broader operations. So his unit tried the drone out on their own, putting a sticker on it that said in Arabic, "Reward if you return to U.S. base." A few days later, they "lost it somewhere in Iraq" and never saw the drone again. (In 2008, two U.S.-made Ravens were found hidden in Iraqi insurgent caches, which not only points to how our adversaries are exploring these technologies, but also shows that insurgents operate under a "finders keepers" ethic). …