Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Military Officer Attitudes toward UAV Adoption: Exploring Institutional Impediments to Innovation

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Military Officer Attitudes toward UAV Adoption: Exploring Institutional Impediments to Innovation

Article excerpt

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The prospective introduction of large numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) arguably represents the most significant ongoing development in U.S. military aviation in decades. (1) The inventory of large UAVs across all Services is projected to increase from 250 in late 2005 to over 1,400 by 2015. Moreover, more than 1,000 mini-UAVs and an undetermined number of even smaller micro- UAVs are projected to enter service during the same period. (2) Until recently, it could be argued that immature technology and relatively poor operational performance made UAVs inferior to manned aircraft, even for the so-called dull, dirty, and dangerous missions. (3) However, ongoing developments in computer control and long-range data links show great near-term promise for many types of UAVs to match, or even exceed, the effectiveness of manned aircraft in a number of roles. If so, the growing arsenals of UAVs will have the potential to take increasing numbers of aviators out of the cockpit.

In his well-known case studies of naval innovation, historian Elting Morison characterized a military service as a self-contained society in which members tend to "find the definition of their whole being." (4) It is generally accepted that the military profession possesses a distinct set of traditions and values that defines this society and distinguishes it from the civilian world. As Morison and others have pointed out, transitions from one type of military approach or system to very different operational concepts or technologies have a major impact on the individuals within these societies. Innovations require new types of skills and different professional knowledge, which in turn render the old skills and knowledge less important. Innovative systems generally demand different tactical employment schemes and operational concepts, which in turn affect command authority, hierarchical relationships, and institutional control of both people and resources. Increasing numbers of officers pursuing the new area of professional specialization actively seek different career paths for promotion and command, putting them in competition with "traditionalists." This was certainly true for the introduction of the steamship, aircraft, tank, aircraft carrier, and other major innovations over the past century and a half--all of which generated internal conflicts.

It is likely that such organizational "disorder," to use Morison's term, could accompany the large-scale introduction of unmanned aircraft as well. Indeed, a key conclusion of Stephen Rosen's case studies of military innovation is that because cultural change within the military is so difficult, any major peacetime innovation requires a full generation to complete--enough time for a new cadre of junior officers practicing the new techniques to rise to positions of leadership. (5)

It is the mass of officer practitioners--those below flag level--who must actually adopt and supervise the operation of new systems. They will be the combat users of the new systems, and some will become the future senior leaders of their Services. The common wisdom is that military aviators identify themselves so strongly with manned aviation that they are unlikely to embrace this technological trend. Indeed, some believe that officer pilots today, just like cavalry officers on the eve of ground force mechanization, could actually impede an objective evaluation of the UAV and introduce unwarranted delays into its operational employment. Despite the potential importance of the broad officer corps to major innovation, there has been exceedingly little empirical information regarding attitudes and actions of these individuals in promoting or impeding major change.

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In early 2006, to shed some light on the issue of cultural or social impediments to military-technical innovation, we surveyed nearly 400 officers with aviation specialties who were attending intermediate and senior professional military education institutions. …

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