Why haven’t drones taken over from manned battle machines?

We have been hearing the idea that one day, serving men and women will not have have any authority over fighting machines. That, once the higher command gives the electronic orders, fighters, ships, subs and armored vehicles will attain their objective with 0 loss of human life. The idea behind this ideology is that trained men and women are expensive to replace. It takes years to train and attain required levels of proficiency at combat related tasks. Simply put, drone deployments will be cheaper as a program than any manned system which goes through both human training and development and machine development phases. Once they attain sufficient levels of dexterity, they are good to fight.

For some reason we haven’t seen this! Men and women still have the final physical control either remote or in person for any weapon launches. Complicated procedures like air combat are still largely human controlled. What automation has added is basically eyes, ears and processing power. Drones allow for operations beyond a human’s physical abilities to concentrate, along with remote access without endangering lives. Data fusion allows the battle commanders to concentrate on tactics instead of trying to study intelligence from 3 different sources in 3 different formats and overlay on his/her battle scenario to develop a suitable response. Here are five factors I consider detrimental for them not replacing manned machines.

1. Peace: Luckily, we have not seen an all out war between major powers on the scale we had seen during the previous centuries. With the fall of USSR our unipolar world is not busy with trillion dollar arms races. The speed of development of weapons is considerably lower than during Cold War. As of now, the idea is to reduce cost while making small increments in capability.


These types flew for the first time only 50 or so years apart

Infact we are seeing a huge downturn in defense budgets throughout the world and commissioning of place holder systems for pride. Designs with just 16 SAMs and 8 AShMs on a 7000 tonne hull is a classic example of building a frigate for the sake of building it. Or building 8×8 vehicles with 105mm or 120mm guns to limit usage of MBTs to killing other MBTs.

4 Here is the 7000 tonne frigate with minuscule armament

Moral of the story being that the peace has made sure we don’t become more efficient at killing each other. Thus we don’t need a next step in development as badly as possibly during the Cold War or WWs 1 & 2. There is no will to shell out the additional funds for automating something that has been reliably done for a century now.

2. Humanity: At the end of the day, we are humans. The World Wars have shown that we can be pretty good at doing immoral things. One thing a machine can’t do is exhibit courage or the feeling of self preservation on the scales of a human. These things make a human, a human. All gallantry award winners showcased exceptional capability to achieve the unthinkable under fire because of these two factors.

It is possible to program this into machines but not at the levels humans are born with. Secondly, every human has a different way of looking at things which adds another level of complexity. This is nearly impossible to emulate in machines as these factors are based on experiences and learning which takes years at end. Programming a machine to do all this might end up being too costly and complicated.

3. Level of Tech: You might be wondering that this point and the previous one are pretty similar. Well, these two are on the different sides of the same coin. On one hand while it is very complicated to emulate human behavior, it is also nearly impossible to do it with present technologies. In general, Artificial Intelligence has been good at maintaining status quo for a system by predicting issues but fails at creative solutions. In a couple of decades, this point can surely be casted aside.

Second aspect is connectivity. Aircraft fly above the weather and closer to satellites thus they can stay connected easily. Ships deal with ever changing weather and surface conditions which add another level of operational and connectivity issues. The worst of the lot are land based ones. The Russians tested their Uran 9 in Syria getting not so positive results. They had connectivity issues, issues with the equipment jamming and no means to repair it and malfunctions. These tests were not under fire and thus manageable, but wouldn’t have been possible during active combat.

4Uran 9 in action

4. Risk of Proliferation: The US has had nukes since the late 1940s, guess what 12 other countries have em to. US had the first aircraft carrier and over 10 other countries have true or pseudo carriers. Technically, the Germans fielded the first ICBM, Cruise Missile, Stealth jet etc. and several countries have them to. Being the first mover has huge advantages during combat but relatively none in peace time.


CH-4 about to take off

Hence the biggest risk of developing such autonomous systems is that within a couple of years, some one else will have it to. Thus quoting Syndrome from The Incredibles, “If everyone has super powers, no one had superpowers!”. It is kinda already true. The US had a huge lead in drones and the Chinese following them closely now albeit with less stringent proliferation policies.

5. Risk of Rogue Operations: In this era of ongoing cyber battles, are completely autonomous systems going to be always secure? Movies like Terminator 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron and series like Person of Interest showcase the dark possibility of a rogue,  unhindered AI. Even if they weren’t hacked, a single corruption in the program could trigger an event which would destroy more lives than such a system could ever save.

With these in mind, I feel we should be happy to not see huge reliance on such systems during our life times. The development in this arena should be thoughtful as to how much autonomy is good and what would be the repercussions of such a system. This reduction in manned weapons systems will happen for sure. Let us hope this reduction is thoroughly scrutinized and there is always a human finger on the trigger.




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One response

  1. Arijit Dakshi

    Because drones don’t understand Clausewitz…. war is a continuation of politics by other means. Politics is about humans, and drones are just tools. In other words, drones don’t really get to the OODA loop.


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