Uncrewed Systems and the Transformation of U.S. Warfighting Capacity

Uncrewed Systems and the Transformation of U.S. Warfighting Capacity

Originally posted in War on the Rocks by Mick Ryan and Clint Hinote

The U.S. military forces that entered Europe and fought their way to Berlin by 1945 bore only a passing resemblance to the U.S. military that had existed just five years before. New technologies on the ground, in the air, at sea, and in the electromagnetic spectrum drove systemic adaptation and resulted in massive joint amphibious operations, large-scale strategic bombing, initial trials of remote-controlled aerial attack weapons, as well as combined arms and air-land collaboration on the ground. A variety of new technologies, the mobilization of industry to produce them en masse, and their combination with new ideas and older military institutions, provided the foundation for the defeat of the Nazis in Western Europe.

New technologies often require updating old ideas, old strategies, and old ways of preparing humans for war. The influx of new technologies into military institutions is continuous, albeit with increased frequency since the first Industrial Revolution. Every now and then, however, a new technology forces a disruptive shift in how wars are started, fought, and ended. Uncrewed systems — which are now undergoing a form of Cambrian explosion in capability, quality, and quantity — appear to be such a technology.

These uncrewed systems vary widely in cost and capability, and they are employed in remote-controlled, semi-autonomous, and autonomous operating modes. The proven utility in the aerial and maritime environments portends a transition to a transformation of military operations across all domains, in many different types of integrated human-machine-AI teams. But despite the disruptive nature of uncrewed aerial systems, by themselves they are not transforming war. It is, rather, a new combination of capabilities that makes transformation possible.

The most important impact of this transformation is that information in the battlespace — traditionally controlled by limited numbers of high-demand sensors and hierarchical distribution of analyzed information — has shifted from paucity to profligacy. Consequently, the democratization of higher-quality information and its spread “to the edge” change how military institutions command and control forces, how they group and regroup joint and combined arms teams, how tactics and the operational art are applied, and how people are trained and educated.

This article is a summary of a broader report we published with the Special Competitive Studies Project. We argue that uncrewed systems impose asymmetric costs when used offensively, which drives a requirement for cost-effective defense. In isolation, this development is disruptive, but not transformational. What is transformational is the combination of uncrewed systems, digitized command and control, and new-era meshed networks of civilian and military sensors. Together, these three elements make it possible to fight differently, in a manner that benefits Western militaries. It is only within this construct that uncrewed systems will fully realize their potential.

Uncrewed Systems and War Under Modern Conditions

Modern Western militaries reflect a fundamental principle of Western thought: Every human being is valuable. These militaries do everything possible to drive down risk to the individual. Taken to an extreme, however, this approach is self-defeating. In recent decades, Western societies have found themselves expending ever-increasing resources for decreasing protection for their people, with increasing costs to modern weapons systems. Western militaries have few forces that can be considered attritable without high political cost, which undermines the conventional deterrent value of our militaries.

Western competitors know this; they have spent two decades developing sensors and weapons designed to find and destroy these costly assets. Relatively cheaper technologies that make exquisite modern weapons vulnerable have proliferated to our potential adversaries. This is the definition of cost imposition, and Western militaries have been on the wrong side for many years.

Uncrewed systems change that equation dramatically. These systems — especially those on the lower end of the cost scale — can be used to impose costs on the adversary who may be focused on crewed systems or more expensive uncrewed vehicles, as they can be used to force their hand in different ways. When confronting large numbers of minimally capable uncrewed systems, adversaries face a difficult choice. They can expend expensive weapons to shoot at inexpensive systems, knowing that more waves are coming. Or they can hold onto their expensive weapons and suffer the consequences of the attack.

This dynamic has made the offensive use of uncrewed systems both attractive and effective. In turn, this has generated a warfighting requirement for cost-effective defense against them. In Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere, we are now seeing an accelerating adaptation battle between uncrewed systems used for attack and the technologies and techniques designed to disrupt or destroy these systems, their communications links, their navigation subsystems, and the people operating them.

In Ukraine, as both sides rapidly adopted uncrewed systems into their plans, technologies to counter these systems lagged. Similarly, Western militaries have been slow to deploy counter-autonomy systems, especially those that can be dispersed and decentralized. This must change, and quickly. The U.S. Army’s Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, established in 2020, is a promising start. But it will need to be expanded in scope, budget, and authority — and collaborate more deeply with allies — to provide timely and capable injections in this adaptation battle. Western militaries can learn important lessons from the Ukrainian and Israeli experiences, especially in the importance of electronic warfare in negating these systems.

Both Ukraine and Russia have learned that uncrewed systems can impose great cost on their forces, and they have adjusted their tactics and equipment accordingly. A key lesson from this adaptation battle is that military forces require a new generation of counter-autonomy systems that are cheaper to purchase and deploy widely. Just as uncrewed systems were cost-imposing because they were much less expensive than traditional defenses, the goal should be for the next generation of counter-autonomy approaches to be roughly equal to or cheaper than the uncrewed systems they are facing.

Drones and a Transformative Trinity

While all wars are the aggregation of many old ideas, they often add a small number of new technologies and ideas to older elements. For example, in Ukraine, traditional approaches such as the use of armored vehicles, artillery, and infantry have been supplemented with uncrewed systems. But just as important has been the meshing of civil and military sensor networks — largely fed by uncrewed platforms — and the connection to new-era digital command and control systems.

It is the combination of these technologies that has made new, more effective approaches to warfare possible. For this reason, our consideration of multidimensional drone employment must be done with the context of what might be described as a transformative trinity. This is a trinity of systems referred to earlier that begins with democratized and digitized battle command and control, which allows uploading and distribution of militarily valuable information by everyone in the battlespace. The second element includes meshed civil-military sensor networks, which produce an unprecedented combination of open source and classified data, as well as meshing of civilian, commercial, and government analysis, to provide an unprecedented (but not transparent) view of the battlespace and enemy strategic systems. Added to these two elements are the uncrewed systems and the systems designed to counter them in the air, on land, and at sea. When combined, these three elements offer options for militaries that have been unattainable to this point.

The knowledge developed through the meshed civil-military intelligence system is shared across the digital command and control system to the lowest levels to inform military decisions. In battle, this informed command and control system helps leaders direct rapid maneuver and focus diverse fires on the adversaries’ critical vulnerabilities. When combined with military units that are equipped and trained to take advantage, there is real potential to apply rapid, accurate effects at scale against adversary forces. The full potential of the trinity, however, cannot be realized unless a military force embraces a fundamental principle — greater (but not uncontrolled) decentralization. The trinity makes it possible for militaries to adopt a powerful division of labor in decision-making. Operational leaders can translate political and strategic guidance into a commander’s intent supported by operational-level planning. Tactical leaders can apply this planning to their specific situations and make real-time adjustments, limiting the damage of a bad decision and exploiting opportunities as they present themselves.

It is important to emphasize that the information needs of tactical leaders at the edge are not the same as that needed for operational planning and assessment. There are important differences in the space and time dimensions of the battlefield. That said, the trinity combination feeds the information needs at both the tactical and operational levels, and the widespread application of various classes of uncrewed systems can support tactical execution as well as the creation of operational — and even strategic — effects. As the trinity evolved in places like Ukraine, it is apparent that an AI-driven integrated environment that delivers shared knowledge and enables machine-aided (uncrewed) planning, tasking, and deconfliction is crucial if Western militaries are to achieve true transformative capability. This will provide a capability into which all leaders and planners can connect, and it will be the core capability that allows for successful integration and deconfliction of military operations.

What has occurred in Ukraine — and what might occur on future battlefields — is that most levels of the combat force have access to the benefits of the trinity. It is no longer true that the best information is at the headquarters or operations center. Instead, it might well be true that the leaders at the edge have a situational awareness that is superior to that enjoyed in the headquarters, because they have access to the same digital information augmented with localized awareness of what is happening around them. This doesn’t negate the role of headquarters, which is still necessary for operational intent, planning, and assessment. It does, however, demand a reimagination of the division of labor between leaders at the tactical and operational levels.

With the information produced by the meshed civil-military network coupled with generalized command and control across the battlespace, leaders at the edge can make rapid, lethal decisions and conduct a successful localized operation in the context of a broader effort. This development is transforming how leaders approach combat in Ukraine. For example, the Ukrainian Delta digital command and control system has helped to shorten decision cycles in some situations. Delta was developed in collaboration with NATO prior to 2022, and it combines real-time mapping with pictures and locations of enemy units, which can be input by anyone with access to a smart device with the Delta app and connection to a network.

Combining uncrewed systems with the other trinity technologies can ensure a more pervasive sensor network over the battlefield. The information gathered is used to either call in fires or to use the drones themselves as attack systems by dropping munitions or as “kamikaze” drones. The tactical result is a drastically reduced time between detection and destruction.

This radical contraction of the kill web begets a harsh reality. Any concentration of combat forces — and those that support them — has become much more perilous. Concentrated and/or fixed forces are easily detectable, and the ability to direct rapid fires on them is achievable by all sides. Therefore, combat forces must adopt distributed tactics that lower the overall signature of a force across multiple domains. These forces must also embrace movement as a key aspect of defense.

Until recently, uncrewed systems were a scarce resource; there were never enough of these capabilities to go around. With the falling costs and increasing capabilities of uncrewed systems, there can be enough to go around. With the right investments, militaries can provide a substantial number of these systems to individual leaders of frontline units, who can take full advantage of real-time awareness provided by the trinity and the sense of the battlefield that resides at the edge. Large numbers of cheap, good-enough systems can enable edge leaders to move quickly and inflict losses on the enemy with lower risk to friendly forces. When combined with a smaller number of more capable crewed and uncrewed systems — and even a few exquisite ones — the combined effect will be profound, even game-changing.

Opportunities for the Strategic Development of Uncrewed Systems

Uncrewed systems offer significant advantages to those military institutions that employ them within the clever and constantly evolving system described as the transformative trinity. To realize the full strategic potential of this approach, changes in people, process, and procurement are necessary.

People. People are at the heart of all military capability and are crucial to realizing the full benefit of uncrewed systems. As militaries seek people who can make this possible, they will need to consider how the widespread use of uncrewed systems will affect recruiting, training (individual and collective), education, culture, promotion, and leadership development models. Military institutions must provide conditions of service that are competitive with outside industry for those who will operate autonomous systems, maintain them, and conduct research to increase their capability.

Beyond the ability to attract and retain talent across the range of needs in the uncrewed system workforce, rapid examination of greater autonomation in the planning and execution of uncrewed system missions is needed. A large proportion of uncrewed systems, such as first-person view and maritime semisubmersible systems, still require at least one — and often more — operators per platform. This construct is suboptimal; it is overly expensive, difficult to fully resource with the right people, and tactically vulnerable.

To that end, the attraction of the right talent must be complemented with the introduction of software that allows for the operation and collaboration of multiple uncrewed systems by individuals. While technological solutions are now appearing on the market for this — described as robotic or drone orchestration — this type of employment will drive the need for new approaches in personnel.

Many Western militaries have regular and reserve components within a voluntary or semivoluntary construct. This represents a significant opportunity vis-à-vis uncrewed systems. Reserve components often have personnel who possess contemporary technological skills relevant in operationalizing the transformative trinity. These people need to be identified and placed in positions where they can apply these skills. Where the necessary skills cannot be found — or sustained — within regular or reserve military workforce models, these militaries will need to supplement their forces with contractors. This integrated workforce model for regular, reserve, and contractor personnel will be fundamental to bringing the technological skills as well as a diversity of new ideas to realize the full potential of the transformative trinity. This will be especially true as militaries look to develop their junior leaders for service at the edge.

Empowered leaders — at every level — who have been trained and trusted to execute mission command can dominate the cognitive and temporal aspects of future combat. They can leverage the trinity to distribute and move their forces while inflicting major losses on the enemy at greater speed and lower risk. In this way, the trinity rewards the initiative of timely battlefield actions exercised in a decentralized way within a broad intent. Put another way, the trinity rewards trust up and down the chain of command, and this trust makes true mission commandpossible. The military force that takes advantage of these developments, trusting and empowering people at every echelon, will enjoy a tremendous tactical advantage that can translate into operational and strategic advantage.

This will demand an evolution in military leadership models. While older requirements to provide purpose, direction, and cohesion for human teams remain, new-era leaders will also need to develop the knowledge and skills to lead teams that have an increasing proportion of semi-intelligent machines and decision-support algorithms. This not only requires improving the technological literacy of leaders at all levels, it may also require a fundamental evaluation of the leadership required for effective human-machine teaming.

The big question regarding uncrewed combat systems remains unanswered for Western militaries, especially that of the United States: Can these militaries learn from the experiences of Ukraine — as well as the results of their experimentation and wargaming — and adopt their widespread use? Until now, they have not. There have been many promising experiments, to be sure. To date, however, no unit of the U.S. military has conceptualized, fielded, and trained with drones on the scale seen in Ukraine. Why not? The evidence points to multiple reasons.

Some in the United States have assumed that the country’s forces would fight differently than those in Ukraine, and so there is a limit to what can be learned from the fighting there. Closely related is a lack of urgency that is still haunting the U.S. military and some key allies, despite the strong signals that warfare is changing rapidly and that potential adversaries will inflict unacceptable attrition using emerging technologies such as drones. Added to this, large defense companies do not perceive that there are sufficient profit incentives for them to go “all in” on drone development, and the barriers to entry for new drone makers are significant. Finally, despite statements to the contrary, many U.S. military leaders do not believe in mission command, and they are not incentivized to field systems — such as the technology trinity discussed here — in ways that empower leaders at the edge. Despite these cultural difficulties, the U.S. and allied militaries will change, either of their own accord or because they are forced to by circumstances.

Process. Transformation in military affairs is largely about transformation in process. Key military processes include tactics, doctrine, organization, support agencies, learning, and adaptation in military institutions. Through transformation in these processes, Western militaries have an opportunity to shape these emerging technologies, and provide foundations for their use, in ways that favor their strengths, with the result being a significant advantage in combat.

Doctrine needs to be adjusted to emphasize the importance of initiative and independent action within the broad commander’s intent as the “new normal” on the modern battlefield, with a corresponding commitment to prepare units for this requirement. Each of these units should be equipped with key capabilities in multiple domains as dictated by the expected environment. The technologies should be shaped to push real-time awareness so that it can be interpreted quickly by leaders at the edge, and these leaders should be able to direct localized action through their digitized command and control systems.

An important element of process is the command and legal authorities invested in leaders. Western militaries will leverage the transformative trinity best when they empower leaders with the authority to command uncrewed systems in relevant domains and the ability to control them as needed, guided by general direction from higher headquarters. This should be the primary paradigm for employment.

In the coming decade, military institutions may realize a situation where uncrewed systems outnumber humans. At present, the tactics, training, and leadership models of military institutions are designed for military organizations that are primarily human, and those humans exercise close control of the machines. Soon, the ratio of humans to uncrewed systems will flip, and many of those uncrewed systems will be capable of partnering with humans, not just be used by them. Changing education and training to prepare humans for partnering with machines — not just using them — is a necessary but difficult cultural evolution.

Procurement. In an environment where the losses of these systems can run into thousands per week on each side, the rapid procurement of drones is as crucial as the mobilization of industry. The Ukrainian government has been addressing bureaucratic obstacles to the development and production of drones. In March 2023, the government of Ukraine issued a decree to remove some of the red tape associated with bidding for Ukrainian armed forces contracts for drones. Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who oversees innovation and technology, noted that “instead of spending months on unnecessary paper and bureaucratic work, [we will have] accelerated admission of drones to operation, their purchase, and delivery to the front.”

Many drones have been sourced from commercial drone companies direct to Ukrainian brigades on the frontlines, which has also increased access to affordable and effective drone systems. This trend is likely to continue in future conflicts. T.X. Hammes writes, “The increasing capabilities of commercial drones are changing the game of how militaries will use this technology. … An increasing range of long-endurance, commercial drones carrying commercial surveillance payloads such as these will allow even smaller states access to affordable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and attack.”

While there are signs that Western militaries are learning from Ukraine’s experience, such as the “Replicator” initiative, there are other issues that remain for militaries looking to adopt drones at scale. For example, there is a trade-off between the sophistication (including electronic hardening), capability, cost, and quantity in uncrewed system fleets. There is no “one size fits all missions” approach available with uncrewed systems.

Achieving the right balance across an uncrewed system fleet will require additional experimentation and a tolerance of some failure in that process in order to learn lessons about the trades between capability and capacity in uncrewed fleets. Additionally, there are questions about the optimal levels of existing inventory versus just-in-time production as part of national mobilization. Finally, collaboration with commercial firms is central to realizing the strategic and tactical advantages of the transformative trinity explored here.

Conclusion: Meeting the Challenge

For the United States and its allies, success in battle will require a powerful and potent blend of humans and technology. The best evidence — including real-world experiences in Ukraine and Gaza as well as wargaming and experimentation — suggests that the elements of the transformative trinity of technologies, including uncrewed systems, will be fundamental to this blend. Neither technology nor humans alone can provide the strategic edge required by the United States and its allies in deterring aggression and winning conflicts in the future security environment.

Only in the optimal blending of new-era technologies with new ideas, new organizations, and empowered leadership can Western militaries integrate drones into their approach to maintaining a strategic edge over potential adversaries in a dangerous and uncertain period. And, it must be done at a pace not seen in Western military organizations since the end of the Cold War. The speed at which Russia, and especially China, can develop, deploy, and evolve their warfighting capabilities at scale must drive the Department of Defense to implement a different strategic tempo if we are to build and sustain a future warfighting advantage.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies