We are repeating the same mistakes that have plagued us over and over the last few decades; we are either trying to force everything in to one platform, or we are seduced by the next BIG thing that our ever-hopeful futurists insist will make everything new and perfect, and all existing old and obsolete.
Neither of those things ever pan out past the PPT to thrive in a world where things make shadows on ramps and displace water pierside ... but like Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football - that doesn't stop us.
The beltway mindset that spawned LCS and F-35 seems to be smothering the promise that unmanned air systems have to bring additional tools to the tactical and operational level commanders.
Here is where it looks like we are going wrong; the argument is moving towards the bifurcated extremes of individual theories and influences, and away from the juicy middle where you have a good, affordable, flexible tool to evaluate and - if the hype matches its promise - expand and grow.
Over at DefenseOne, Robert A. Newson, CAPT USN, outlines what I think is a very fair critique of the direction we are heading;
Initial UCLASS fielding is projected seven to eight years from now in 2022-3 and we will be a decade closer to the rise of the small and the many. While it is not an either/or proposition, over-investment in unmanned platforms that are large, complex, and limited in numbers (because of exorbitant cost) will significantly disadvantage the United States in a major conflict ten to twenty years from now when the UCLASS and its decedents fly into combat.That is indeed the question. I would also add that with complexity comes increased technology risk - a risk that we do not have a good record of managing.
Congress and the aircraft industry seem to want all eggs in an exquisite and expensive basket.
It should be self-evident that this focus on survivability in unmanned aircraft is almost a non sequitur, forfeiting s a prime value of unmanned systems. Because there are no humans on board, unmanned systems can conduct more risky missions and are, almost by definition, expendable—unless they cost $50 million dollars a copy. At what price point do unmanned systems become non-expendable and require even more investment in survivability?
Besides bad habits, I cannot for the life of me understand why we can't get onboard with a first tranche a relatively simple and bare ISR unmanned air system with lots of engineering "white space" for growth and development.
Once we crawl there, we can move to a slightly more capable platform in following tranches. Radical idea this "build a little, test a little, learn a lot" - works great.
I like to kick the FIRESCOUT program around, but here is what they got right. They are working through more and more capable systems as they move forward and learn. That part they are doing correctly and deserve credit for?
UCLASS? It is starting to smell like a F-35 FLAILEX ... starting from the beginning. Heck, we couldn't even call the F-35 in its proper numbering protocol for all fighters, and we named LCS and JHSV ... well, you know the story. Anyway, give UCLASS a real designation and we can move forward as adults and not PR people.
Back to the article.
On the other side of this much needed debate are those who see a world where the large and the few are overtaken by the small and the many. It does not strain the imagination to contemplate the advancements in miniaturization, sensors, and weapons technology that will continue the trends ushered in with precision weapons—hiding from detection will become increasingly difficult; dispersion of forces and capability is more and more important; and massing military capability will increase the probability and cost of combat losses.Like those advocating the exquisite and expensive UCLASS, I think the "swarm theorists" are, in a fashion, guilty of the same futurists conceit.
The small and distributed is a point that I agree will in many places shape future conflict - but I don't think we can assume that it will be future conflict.
You can't make statements like, "We don't need large unmanned strike platforms." History is laughing at you like Tim the Enchanter.
Sure, we do need to look at small and distributed - but it is a "both" not an "or."
As the Ukrainians will tell you, those who have been speaking of the death of armoured warfare have been way off the mark. Likewise, those who think that a navy will not need to project power - a lot of power over sustained lengths of time - as in magazine emptying power projection - may be a little too narrow in their understanding of the wide spectrum of conflict.
For strike, I have always thought that in general, unmanned air systems should complement what we have. There is a significant gap in strike between what TLAM brings to the game, and what the airwing brings. If nothing else, UCLASS is a slightly more capable, reusable TLAM - perhaps more. But to start - and unquestionably until we get some real experience with it - we need to be humble in our expectations.
Unmanned systems fill that gap. More than ISR? Sure ... but ISR should be a large part of that capability to start off and ongoing. Strike? Sure ... but ... I am not sure the promise is all what people are making it out to be.
ROE and the tender mercies of C2 via the electomagnetic spectrum will limit the utility of unmanned systems outside carefully crafted artificial vignettes, and highly scripted wargames. That being said, we should stretch and see ... but do so with an understanding that we may get it wrong, or only partially right.
Where should be be heading? For starters, we need to move away from a single platform concept. This simply creates an excessively complicated platform that can do a lot, but none of it satisfactorily; a glorious monument to multi-mission mediocrity. That usual mix of a Tiffany Navy infested with sub-optimal ships.
This accountant's desire for the on-paper cheapest solution via single platforms begat us a flight deck of light strike fighters, E-2s, and SH-60s. A single UCLASS will make this solution work at last? No.
It is the height of historical blindness and arrogance for us to think that we know exactly what kind of platform we need in unmanned air systems. Until we start operating them, we need to not have all our eggs in one basket. We may find that one is best, or we may find that a variety of systems of different capabilities are the best thing to have to meet the wide variety of challenges that will come over the horizon.
Small or large, we do not need to have a single-source, unproven concept based solution. As we figure things out, we need an unmanned air systems diversity like the flight deck of a Vietnam War WESTPAC carrier.
We don't need the accountant's logic of an deck of F-18 variants and E-2s, no; we need that glorious mix of A-3, A-4, A-5, A-6, F-4, EA-6, E-2, and S-2.
Let the fleet work it out. Build a little, test a little, learn a lot. Add deploy a lot ... and you have the way forward.