Small Wars

This Week at War: Disposable Warfare

When you go to war with robots, occasional losses are unavoidable.

Drone crash inside Iran will not slow down war robots

This week we learned that a stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crashed 140 miles inside Iran with its wreckage recovered by Iranian security forces. Dubbed "the Beast of Kandahar" in 2009 after it appeared at a U.S. airbase there, the RQ-170 flew clandestine missions over Abbottabad, Pakistan, collecting intelligence prior to the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials considered a covert mission to either recover or destroy the wreckage before Iranian forces were able to reach the crash site, before concluding that the drone's technology likely didn't warrant the risk of another intrusion into Iran.

Rather than slow the march toward the future of drone warfare, this incident only supports the expanded development and deployment of smarter and more capable drones. That means that U.S. officials and commanders will have to live with more such losses of sensitive drone hardware to adversaries.

According to the Washington Post, the CIA has been flying intelligence gathering drones over Iran for several years. The absence of an embassy or consulates in Iran hinders the ability of the CIA to develop an agent network in the country. The U.S. intelligence community is thus highly reliant on satellites, drones, and other electronic snooping to gather intelligence on the country. The intelligence community is likely finding drones, especially ones like the stealthy RQ-170, especially valuable at scooping up electronic data on Iran's government and military communications, its air defense system, telemetry from its weapon systems, and observing patterns of behavior on the ground. And when a drone crashes (this time very likely due to a mechanical problem), the U.S. does not find itself bargaining for another Francis Gary Powers, the CIA pilot captured in Soviet Union in 1960 when his U-2 spy plane went down.

The lesson learned from this incident is not to hold back on drone employment but rather to build better drones and to accept the risks that come with their use. Stealthier drones will soon be able to provide continuous observation of suspected targets, gathering information that was not previously available to policymakers, thus reducing some of the guesswork from decision-making. Drones will be able to fly very long missions beyond the physiological endurance of human aircrews. In expansive theaters like the Asia-Pacific region, this capability will reduce U.S. dependence on forward bases currently vulnerable to missile attack. Long-range UAVs on aircraft carriers will allow the Navy to conduct strike operations from much longer ranges and with greater safety to its ships. Finally, long-endurance drones will provide isolated infantry patrols with continuous scouting and fire support.

Next-generation drone development seems to be ahead of schedule. The Navy's combat UAV demonstrator project recently took 16 flights rather than the anticipated 49 flights to reach initial flight test milestones. This rapid advance in robotic aircraft is in stark contrast to the delays experienced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, many caused by software problems in the F-35's manned cockpit. In explaining the Navy UAV's test success, the program manager, in a subtle dig at pilots, said, "we will not have to fly the platform as much as manned systems, which are less predictable."

We now know that the CIA has waged a long and expansive aerial reconnaissance campaign over Iran. Without unmanned drones, such an effort would have requiring risking pilots over Iran, which undoubtedly would have limited the campaign's scope and persistence. With advanced drones in its inventory, the United States was able to make more and longer flights, thus gaining far more intelligence than otherwise. Future drones will be more expensive and more technically advanced than the RQ-170 and will contain much more sensitive components and technology. Crashes will be unavoidable. Policymakers will have to accept this risk if they are to gain the many benefits the drones will deliver.

Does the United States need a new maritime strategy?

This week, President Hu Jintao urged China's navy to "make extended preparations for military combat." Although U.S. officials downplayed the remarks, Hu's speech comes in the context of China's recent assertions of territorial claims in the South China Sea, maritime incidents involving Chinese fishing boats and Japanese patrol craft, and concerns in East Asia over China's strategic intentions.

In October 2007, the U.S. government published the nation's current maritime strategy in a document titled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Signed by the leaders of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, "CS-21," as the strategy came to be known, sought to explain the importance of seapower to U.S. interests and how the country's three naval services would cooperate to protect those interests. What is now in question is whether abrupt changes in the strategic environment since 2007 now call for a new maritime strategy and whether the Navy needs to re-argue its case to Congress and the public.

Although it's just four years old, CS-21 was written in a world much different than today's. Though 2007 was a dark time for U.S. ground combat power in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the seas there was almost no question about U.S. dominance. Chinese naval developments were more a curiosity than a concern. Piracy had been subdued near the Strait of Malacca and had yet to metastasize around Somalia. Most importantly, the U.S. economy and financial system still seemed strong and a collapse in the defense budget and naval shipbuilding was then unthinkable. In that context, and without a specific military threat to counter, CS-21 focused on the importance of the global trading system and the role seapower had in protecting that system. CS-21's answer was to improve cooperation, not only among the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, but also with allied naval forces toward a goal of more effectively promoting and protecting the global system.

Four years of economic and political turmoil has created a new and much more challenging context for maritime strategy. In a recent essay, U.S. Navy Captain Charles C. Moore II leveled some stinging criticisms at CS-21 and in doing so, showed how this changed strategic context will require the Navy to reorganize its priorities.

Moore notes that CS-21 shied away from describing specific naval threats. The rise of the Chinese navy, piracy in littoral areas, and the general proliferation of precision anti-ship missiles among state and non-state actors makes this omission no longer tenable. Moore asserts that the maritime strategy should tie in more closely with the goals and aspirations of the top-level National Security Strategy of the United States. With many common goals and language in the two documents, the lack of specific linkage is a missed opportunity for the sea services to show how they are directly supporting the country's overall national security objectives. Having described the ends sought and the threats to those ends, Moore then insists that the maritime strategy state the fleet requirements and force structure necessary to achieve the strategy's goals, something CS-21 did not specifically discuss.

A scramble for shrinking defense resources is now underway. Unfortunately for the Navy, polls show that the public views it as the least important and prestigious of the services, aside from the Coast Guard. Yet the future security environment, combined with the Obama administration's stated "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region, only boosts the importance of the three maritime services. The disconnection between U.S. strategic priorities and the public's perception is a problem for the Navy, but also an opportunity that a new strategy could address.

Earlier this year, Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer and the lead author of CS-21, wrote that he believed the United States now needs a new maritime strategy. This strategy should be tightly linked to the nation's top national security goals. It should explain the role seapower plays in national security and describe the current and future threats in the maritime realm. Finally, it should defend the force structure required to achieve the stated national maritime security goals. A lot has changed in the four years since CS-21 came out, and the Navy needs a new message.


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