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Inside Washington’s attempt to save America’s drone advantage

An MQ-9 Reaper drone
An MQ-9 Reaper drone
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The United States is losing its drone edge. And quicker than you might think: a recent piece in Defense One summarized the expert consensus as "every country will have armed drones within ten years." This catchup could spell trouble for the US military's advantage in the quality of drone technology, a not-insignificant component of the US's overall advantage in military technology. The US government has a plan to fix this, but it's far from perfect, and a revealing glimpse into how Washington's decision-making bureaucracy works, and doesn't.

Michael Horowitz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on how militaries adopt new technologies and strategies. On Tuesday, Horowitz published a scathing attack on America's plan for adapting in unmanned military technology. The US military has more than 23,000 unmanned vehicles, by far the world's largest arsenal. However, everyone else is starting to catch up — China, for instance, recently debuted a model shockingly similar to America's missile-equipped Reaper drone.

China isn't actually America's biggest drone problem. "The greatest threat to U.S. dominance in military robotics," Horowitz writes, "may come not from foreign militaries or the commercial sector, but from sensitivities within the parts of the Pentagon itself." The US military has started seeing drones basically as either support vehicles or tools for bombing terrorists, rather than thinking creatively about how to use them to enhance the US military more broadly. That's bad for innovation, and could give other militaries an opportunity to leapfrog the US.

He compares their approach to drones to the British Navy's original approach to aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers are widely considered one of the most potent offensive weapons in a navy's arsenal, but when first developed, the British couldn't think of them as anything other than support for the then-dominant battleships. This weakened their navy in World War II, and it's possible that an innovative use of drones could do the same to the US military in the not-so-distant future.

One of the biggest barriers to fixing this problem is figuring out what drone systems to invest in. Sequestration has made the competition for funding inside the Pentagon fierce, yet there's no organized plan for directing scarce resources towards drones. "The way that we bought unmanned systems was on a yearly basis, let's decide what we need," Sam Brannen, an expert on drones at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. "No one had a five year plan, no one had a ten year plan."

This has led to all sorts of inefficiencies. Brannen told me a particularly vivid story about tests on two drones: the Global Hawk RQ-4 and the MQ-4C Triton. The Triton is a derivative of the Global Hawk, making the two very similar. Yet the military planned to "to pay twice for the same deicing test" by testing each model separately, needlessly doubling the testing costs. Why? Because the Hawk is operated by the Air Force, and the Triton is operated by the Navy. And "that's the tip of the iceberg," according to Brannen.

This gets to part of the problem: multiple branches of the military own and operate drones, but their programs are isolated from one another, leading to wasteful spending while at the same time isolating program operators from one another across branches such that it's much tougher for them to share lessons and insights. Costs go up and innovation goes down.

One of Brannen solutions to these inefficiencies, codified in a report, is deceptively simple: put someone in charge of fixing it. Brannen wants to create a new office in the Pentagon: the Defense Unmanned Systems Office (DUSO), with a whole staff dedicated to streamlining drone spending and thinking creatively about which systems could help the US innovate strategically and tactically.

This central drone office, DUSO, would coordinate "the cross-[Department of Defense] research, development, testing and evaluation" budget. It would also "conduct a review across existing DoD roles and missions to determine potential areas where unmanned systems technology could create military advantage" in order to "energize the use and development of unmanned systems beyond" surveillance and counterterrorism.

Every year, Washington's think tank community produces countless reports with policy recommendations; most of them go nowhere. But, much to Brannen's surprise, DUSO somehow ended up in congressional legislation.

A colleague at another think tank sent him word that Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) was thinking about writing DUSO into law. According to Brannen, Forbes' staff had read the proposal and thought it was a neat idea. After hearing about this, Brannen started talking to them, and DUSO made its way into the Asia-Pacific Region Security Act Forbes coauthored with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI).

Brannen is pessimistic about DUSO's chances on the Hill. "I'm not sure there's much appetite for it on the Senate side," he said, noting congressional frustration with the already-astronomical amount of bureaucracy inside the Pentagon.

But nonetheless, there appears to have been something good to come out of the whole episode. The proposal has, according to Brannen, "touched off a debate inside DOD about how best to allocate resources" as they relate to drones.

So who knows? Maybe the United States military won't end up holding an empty bag in the Great Drone Wars of 2048.