Earlier this week, the Associated Press released a story on the outlook for military contractors that ended with an absurd observation by Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon. The widely quoted military analyst said, “the era of manned airplanes should be seen as over,” and he went on to imply that politics is the main reason Washington hasn’t acknowledged the inexorable trend away from use of human pilots.
This is dangerous nonsense. The reason unmanned aircraft seem so inevitable to Mr. O’Hanlon is that he has spent much of the last ten years focused on counter-insurgency warfare in Southwest Asia, and insurgents don’t have air forces. They also usually don’t have surface-to-air missiles. So of course it seems like unmanned aircraft will play an ever-increasing role in future conflicts, because current adversaries can’t stop them.
But what happens when we run into a real enemy, one that more closely resembles the characteristics of the big industrial adversaries that threatened democracy in the last century? Then, our unmanned aircraft will be incapable of accomplishing anything useful, because they cannot survive in hostile airspace — unless, of course, the skies are first swept clean of threats by manned aircraft such as the F-35 joint strike fighter and EA-18G electronic warfare plane.
Like many other proponents of robotic warfare, Mr. O’Hanlon wrongly believes that the current, quite minimal threats faced by U.S. air power will persist into the future, when in fact the most important military lesson of the last ten years is that things tend to change in unexpected ways. He compounds his error by overestimating the resilience and agility of technologies currently available for incorporation into unmanned aircraft.
The latter error is reminiscent of the technological hubris surrounding military transformation during the Rumsfeld era. Pentagon policymakers were so eager to extend the dot.com revolution into combat that they grossly overestimated the effectiveness and affordability of what could be fielded. A case in point was the Army’s now canceled Future Combat System, which sought to substitute situational awareness for heavy armor. That concept began dying the moment Iraqi insurgents discovered the improvised explosive device.
Countries that over-estimate the battlefield utility of new technology and under-estimate the resourcefulness of future adversaries tend to lose wars. Mr. O’Hanlon of all people should understand this, since he is a leading student of the U.S. military’s near-death experience in Iraq. If he now intends to return to his previous pastime of commenting on high-end combat too, he really needs to read up on what some of our prospective adversaries are doing, and the limitations of unmanned aircraft technology.
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