Rise of the Robots? Don’t Forget the Humans


For the past decade it seemed fact was following fiction as U.S. military UAVs proliferated and the public’s imagination started recalling Hollywood films from the 1980s and 1990s (think The Terminator).

But comments this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) annual conference in Washington by two different commanding officers remind me that truth is stranger than fiction. As much as the military is learning to love all-things unmanned, planners are just as concerned with how to integrate unmanned systems with manned weapons and platforms and make them truly interoperable.

Take the Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, Rear Adm. Mat Winter, when asked about when we could expect unmanned aircraft carriers to set sail sporting fleets of unmanned aircraft and submarines. Not in the near future, for sure, he answered, “We are focused on…integration on our current Nimitz-class carriers, with the ability to integrate on the Ford class. We all know that the longevity, the endurance of an aircraft carrier is measured multiple decades, 50-years-plus. So those current platforms that are underway today will be with us for many decades to come,” Winter said Aug. 13. “I’m not aware of any shift of any other type of shipbuilding strategy.”

The day before, the Army’s deputy chief of staff responsible for financial management, Lt. Gen. James Barclay, highlighted integration of manned and unmanned systems as a key concern of his armed service over the next several years.

To be sure, both Barclay’s and Winter’s comments are notable – not so much for reining in concerns of the further rise of unmanned systems – but for benchmarking the, dare I say, revolution in military affairs that has come from unmanned systems to date. As Barclay noted, at the beginning of his career three decades ago his colleagues dismissed unmanned vehicles, if for no other reason that the perceived threat to their jobs. Now military leaders see the necessity of unmanned, but more importantly, integrating them into the rest of the arsenal.

“There is no intention of going 100% unmanned,” Winter said. “It’s complementary, where it makes sense, for mission alignment so our carrier strike groups can do their missions.”

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