The movement toward unmanned weapons systems seems inevitable. In a recent discussion with Defense News, Bradford Tousley, the director of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), explained that unmanned technology is the “natural evolutionary path” in the future of warfare. That view is widely shared among defense policy experts. Unmanned and autonomous weapons systems have been central to the Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy, which calls for greater investments in these technologies to compete with rivals such as China. Today, each branch of the U.S. military is investing heavily in the research, development, and use of autonomous and unmanned systems.
Perhaps the best known of these new weapons systems are unmanned aerial vehicles—known as UAVs in the military but colloquially referred to as drones. Since 2002, the United States has carried out almost 800 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; since 2015, it has conducted 3,911 in Afghanistan alone. And the United States’ reliance on unmanned weapons is growing: since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the rate of unmanned strikes has increased markedly.
Drones appear to provide a useful example of how militaries can bring unmanned systems onto the battlefield. According to their advocates, unmanned systems of the future will not only increase combat effectiveness by improving decision-making and targeting accuracy but also give the United States the ability to pursue national security goals without risking the lives of its military personnel. Despite the strong push toward unmanned systems from technocrats in the Pentagon, however, little attention has been paid to how they are viewed from the battlefield. What, for instance, do those on the ground think about the utility of drones relative to that of manned aircraft?
Our research suggests that operators on the ground see drones as riskier and less trustworthy than manned aircraft. These are the personnel who integrate new technologies into training, develop tactics for their use, and ultimately put these tactics into practice. Their perspective
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