In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Jacquelyn Schneider and Julia Macdonald argue, based on their research interviewing U.S. ground troops, that troops prefer close air support from inhabited (“manned”) rather than uninhabited (“unmanned”) aircraft, or drones. After citing the limitations of today’s drones and anti-drone cultural attitudes among troops, they go on to say that “building better drones will not solve this problem” and that “policymakers should reexamine their apparent commitment to an unmanned future.”
Schneider and Macdonald’s research highlights important limitations of today’s drones. They are wrong, however, to conclude that the United States should reconsider its commitment to robotic technology. Quite the opposite: building better drones can solve many of the concerns they raise and should be a priority for future force development.
THE SODA STRAW
Schneider and Macdonald identify two main issues with how troops think about drones. The first is an “engineering problem”—today’s drones are limited by what is known as the “soda straw” view that their pilots have of the battlefield. Drone pilots can see high-definition video of events on the ground but lack the wider field of vision that would help them contextualize what they are seeing. This can particularly be a problem when aircraft are supporting ground troops in combat, a sometimes confusing situation where mistakes can lead to fratricide. By contrast, a human physically sitting in a cockpit can absorb information about the battlefield far more rapidly, particularly if sitting in an aircraft optimized for close air support, such as the A-10. There is no easy way to transmit enough data back to a remote pilot to re-create that same degree of situational awareness.
The current paradigm for remotely controlling aircraft, however, is not the only possible one. For close air support, a better approach may be to actually place control of the air strike directly in the hands of the tactical air controller on the ground, who will have much greater situational awareness than a drone
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