An unmanned aerial vehicle crew wheels out a Shadow 200 UAV for flight at Forward Operating Base Warrior, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. (Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod / Army)
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Some U.S. military operators don't trust the new generation of autonomous systems on the battlefield. That may be slowing the Pentagon's push for unmanned technologies, according to a new report.
"Unfortunately, the word ‘autonomy' often conjures images in the press and the minds of some military leaders of computers making independent decisions and taking uncontrolled action," states a recent report from the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory group. "While the reality of what autonomy is and can do is quite different from those conjured images, these concerns are — in some cases — limiting its adoption."
The board's two-year study concluded that several cultural factors may be hindering the military's most effective use of autonomous technologies, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned submarines and ground-based robots.
The report, completed in July and released publicly in September, recommends that military leaders emphasize the human oversight involved in unmanned technologies.
The board warns that negative perceptions pose a risk at a time when the defense budget is shrinking and autonomous systems may be vulnerable to funding cuts that delay their development. Pentagon budgets earmark nearly $32 billion for unmanned systems, mostly aircraft, from 2011 through 2015, the report says.
Effective use of unmanned systems is "hampered by doctrinal and cultural issues." Among them:
• There is a lack of "senior service champions" advocating for funding and use, most likely because senior leaders do not have firsthand operational experience with these systems.
• Rules of engagement may be "overly restrictive."
• Systems are developed and built in a way that makes updates difficult without large-scale redesigns.
The report offers numerous reasons for the Pentagon to aggressively pursue unmanned systems, including their capacity for extended endurance on long missions and their potential to reduce manpower requirements and human casualties.
The development and acquisition process emphasizes the hardware; the Pentagon should consider making institutional changes that shift the focus to the software components, the report says.
The high wartime operational tempo of the past decade also created a difficult environment for the military to integrate new technologies, the report says.
"The urgent deployment of unmanned systems to theater left little time to refine concepts of operation which, when coupled with the lack of assets and time to support pre-deployment exercises, created operational challenges," the report says.