The U.S. military is at the leading edge of the robotics revolution, with some of the most advanced systems on the globe like the autonomous X-47B carrier-based aircraft. But that lead is fragile and other nations are racing to catch up. Scholars warn of a “looming robotics gap,” driven in part by the explosion in widely accessible commercial robotics, some of which will have dual-use military purposes.
The biggest threat to the U.S. military’s lead in unmanned systems isn’t commercial sector innovation or even declining defense resources, however, but rather hidebound cultures and entrenched bureaucracies within the Department of Defense (DoD) itself. Unmanned systems have been embraced for niche missions like reconnaissance, bomb disposal, or cargo resupply, but resistance persists to their use for many military tasks and missions, even when use of force is controlled by a person “in the loop.”
While numerous DoD vision or roadmap documents spell out the advantages of unmanned systems, with few exceptions these visions are not funded. Only one out of every 20 research, development, and procurement dollars are spent on unmanned systems. As a result, the U.S. military risks falling behind in a critical emerging area.