* The deployment of hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Afghan and Iraq wars may only scratch the surface of what's to come, if the vision of some military leaders comes to pass.
UAVs have gained favor as ways to reduce risk to combat troops, the cost of hardware and the reaction time in a surgical strike.
For Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the possibilities of the UAVs evolution from today's design to tomorrow's vision can't come soon enough. This portends more UAVs, digital versus analog, better technology, combat-capable and cognitive functions.
Changing UAVs from analog to digital surveillance dramatically reduces the number of personnel required to carry out the same missions.
"It takes 19 analysts to run a Predator," Cartwright said at a recent forum sponsored by the investment bank Credit Suisse. "We just started fielding sensors that can take a single Predator and move it to 64 simultaneous sharing points on the Earth. I can't stand that math. I don't have that many analysts."
Digitizing the surveillance recordings from UAVs not only reduces the number of analysts required, it minimizes the challenges of humans plowing through hours and hours of images in their effort to identify the bad guys or targets. Digital technology can perform these tasks quicker and more accurately.
This also goes straight to endurance, which is a key issue for the armed forces.
"Pilots get tired after five or six hours and start missing things," Cartwright said. UAVs can remain aloft for 12 or 24 hours or even five days or more. To provide the equivalent amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage by conventional means requires scores of service members and hugely expensive airplanes.
"Our biggest capital investments are people," Cartwright told the conference.
Cartwright said the military is putting personnel "in the wrong place. We are under-utilizing them. Our platforms today outperform a human being in endurance. They are soon going to start outperforming a human being in a mechanical, physical ability to withstand the forces and maneuverability that [the platforms] can put them through."
For all the advantages UAVs show, however, it is the prospect of adding cognitive power that excites Cartwright the most.
"The competitive edge quite frankly isn't in either [endurance and digital capabilities], it is in the cognitive power we can put into those platforms to operate and inter-operate with each other without the intervention of a human being. The leverage is probably going to be greatest on the cognitive side, without people in them," Cartwright said.
"It's not science fiction; it is easily obtainable," Cartwright said. "It's just that we are not going after it, and we're going to have to."
This doesn't mean that people will be totally cut out of the equation.
"Gen. Cartwright is not at the stage where we should go all the way to 'X' in terms of cognitive power," said an officer familiar with his thinking. For example, Pentagon lawyers are concerned that robots such as UAVs should not have the capability to make life-and-death combat decisions because of the possibility of civilian and friendly casualties. But some experts insist the machines may be less prone to such mistakes because they have greater cognitive recognition and they don't tire as easily as a service member.
"If you have identified ethical concerns, how do you explore technology in context of ethical concerns?" asked the officer. "You can't take the human factor out entirely. You ask, 'What do we want to accomplish, what do we want to achieve, and we look at things such as, where is the trigger-puller? You could potentially put the trigger puller somewhere else."
The overall approach is called observe, orient, design, act, or OODA. …