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Winged Luddites: Aviators Are the Biggest Threat to Carrier Aviation

We must not be misled to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse.

Gen. John K. Herr, opposing the development of the tank, in 1938

Between 1811 and 1816, British factory workers formed a movement known as Luddism. The Luddites sought to protect labor-intensive jobs by attacking and destroying the new industrial-age machinery of factory owners who, they felt, used machines to undercut standard labor practices in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner.” Today, “Luddite” is commonly used as a disparaging term for “a person opposed to technology or ways of working,” but the historical meaning goes beyond this superficial definition. A Luddite is someone who opposes specific technologies because they threaten a way of life or livelihood.

The U.S. military is not immune to Luddism. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, there have been notable examples of intense resistance to change in the face of threats to traditional roles and service identities. Gen. John K. Kerr’s impassioned testimony against the tank in 1938 is a case in point. Similarly, the U.S. Navy’s battleship admiralty of the 1920s and 1930s hindered the adoption of aircraft as striking instruments. They did not appreciate how the technology would disrupt modern warfare and upend the status quo.

Today, leaders in naval aviation are impeding the rapid adoption of reconnaissance and strike-capable aircraft carrier drones through deliberate incrementalism, purposefully constraining autonomous platform capabilities and delaying deployment with cautious and lengthy feasibility studies — all while adversaries accept greater risks to rapidly field imposing capabilities. Despite evidence that human-piloted strike-fighter platforms lack the range and endurance, compared to their unmanned counterparts to remain relevant in future conflict, carrier-based drone deployment will lag threats until at least the late 2020s. The Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance strike-fighter project is embattled by Luddism, and its leaders are striving to maintain human pilots as the centerpiece of the aircraft carrier’s power projection capability. If the aircraft carrier’s value is indeed its ability to project airpower and sea control against determined threats, then the carrier’s credibility to deter future war hangs in the balance. Accelerated acquisition of carrier-based supervised lethal autonomous drones is paramount to sea control and disrupting U.S. adversaries at range. 

Handicapping Progress

Aircraft carriers cannot effectively deliver sea control and power projection without relevant airpower, leaving fragile sea-borne logistical chains vulnerable to enemy naval and air forces. Thus, during the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, naval commanders came to prize three attributes of naval aviation above all others: concentrated mass, range, and payload.

For autonomous drones to be viable, they must offer similar mass, range, payload, and survivability characteristics compared to their competing manned counterparts. It is crucial that humans remain the nexus on the decision for use of force, known as supervised autonomy. In this concept, humans maintain some type of oversight or “kill switch” for their autonomous systems through the monitoring of feedback mechanisms and will not necessarily be involved in the algorithmic prosecution of targets. Instead, humans retain accountability and dictate “commander’s intent” for their intelligent agent behavior to achieve “centralized control, decentralized execution” — the embodiment of mission command.

In the early 2000s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency debuted two X-45A technology demonstrators that displayed high levels of supervised collaborative autonomy (i.e., the ability to autonomously coordinate amongst different machines to accomplish a common goal, also known as swarming) and the ability to detect and engage simulated surface-to-air missile systems. A later variant, the X-45C, sported low-observable survivability features, an unrefueled combat radius over 1,300 nautical miles, cruise speeds of 0.8 Mach, and a weapon payload similar to the F-35. The U.S. Air Force and Navy pursued their intelligent semi-autonomous drone experimentation programs jointly starting in 2003 under the auspices of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, which included the X-47B demonstrator.

The X-47B, an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike demonstrator, gained the distinction as the first system to autonomously land on an aircraft carrier and conduct aerial refueling operations. It demonstrated flying precision beyond human ability, denting armored carrier flight decks through repeated algorithmic precision landings. The technology demonstrators delivered the three prized naval aviation attributes along with the ability to stay aloft longer than what a human pilot can endure. Humans fatigue quickly, requiring food and rest. Drones require no such reprieve. Their exceptional endurance could reduce the number of launch-and-land deck cycles required to keep the same amount of airpower airborne from a carrier. And because intelligent autonomous drones displace human supervision from the cockpit to a mission control station, drones can be smaller than their manned counterparts without sacrificing capability. This allows for greater mass on carrier flight decks.

The Navy’s aerial refueling drone program, the MQ-25 Stingray, does not solve the anti-access/area denial problem posed by modern adversaries. China’s missile weapon systems like the Dong-Feng 21 and 26 enjoy ranges that exceed the standoff of a carrier air wing enhanced by the nascent MQ-25 tanker. Long-range weapon systems like these and their inevitable capability improvements require transforming the carrier air wing through new operational concepts and capabilities to hold targets within defended areas, known as the denied area, at risk. These operational concepts heavily leverage the use of drones. Capable of penetrating defended airspace with strike radii over 1,000 nautical miles while possessing a significant weapons payload, autonomous drones will ensure aircraft carrier relevancy in denied environments

In a case of technological infanticide, the Air Force parted ways with the Navy in 2006, instead pursuing AI-derived autonomy and complementary advanced capabilities. Despite successful tests two decades ago that proved autonomous drones could perform complex strike missions with minimal human direction and do so better than manned fighters, military leaders were reticent to embrace the technology. While official accounts allude to irreconcilable differences in capability requirements with the Navy, a Boeing employee acknowledged, “The reason that was given was that we were expected to be too good in key areas and that we would have caused disruption to the efforts to ‘keep F-22 but moreover JSF [F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] sold.’”

The Navy continued developing the X-47B independently until cancelling the program in 2015 amidst congressional requests to expand missions beyond reconnaissance. Instead, the MQ-25 Stingray became the Navy’s new focus. As currently configured, the MQ-25 does not carry weapons or reconnaissance payloads. Rep. Rob Wittman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces spoke bluntly:

The Navy needs to develop an unmanned, long-range, carrier-based, penetrating strike capability. Yet, this nascent UCLASS [unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike] program [X-47B] was usurped to field a far less capable MQ-25 tanking drone.

Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments also remarked that “the Navy chose to pursue the MQ-25 and not fund a capability that would, frankly, be of greater utility in a great power conflict.” In recent congressional testimony, Navy leaders described potential future MQ-25 reconnaissance and weapons integration. However, the service believes that the initial capability of the MQ-25 aircraft will not be realized until 2025, after operational test and evaluation reporting in 2024. The above is predicated on the completion of sea trials and that a low-rate initial production decision is made in 2023. Pending the achievement of acquisition milestones, MQ-25 deliveries are expected to take up to 12 years, likely precluding significant investments in capability expansion beyond tanking missions for some time. This cautious, incremental approach means that the Navy will have difficulty countering China’s current and future anti-access/area denial threats through at least 2035. 

Friends in High Places

A significant number of influential senior Navy leaders hail from aviation backgrounds, influencing their professional loyalties and decisions. In 2015, 26 percent of flag officers were naval aviators. Today, a sizeable portion of numbered fleet and combatant commanders hail from the Naval Aviation Enterprise, including the commanders of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, 2nd Fleet, 3rd Fleet, 7th Fleet, 10th Fleet, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Of the nine carrier strike groups, five are commanded by naval aviation flag officers. Additionally, Air Force fighter pilots are commanders of U.S. European Command and Northern Command, and one serves as the chief of staff of the Air Force. These aviators have acquired higher positions of influence from their current posts, guiding the direction, procurements, and composition of the future force while grooming their successors. Being an aviator does not inevitably predispose one to a particular stance on unmanned aviation, but aviation is a tribal community, and it undeniably fosters a certain level of insular and provincial thought. A U.S. strategist commented in 2013, “The old is privileged by tribes of people who believe their careers and professional identity are linked to a particular system or specialty.”

Today’s aviation leaders are not those of a decade ago, but they hail from a common cultural lineage with the leaders who killed earlier nascent capabilities. Actions speak louder than words. Although various reasons were given for the cancellations of earlier carrier autonomous drone programs, the results are that promising capabilities were cancelled, delayed, or curtailed, securing the manned strike-fighter status quo for decades.

Resistance to autonomous drones supplanting manned strike-fighter aircraft does not stop with active-duty influencers. The Project on Government Oversight identified 100 flag and general officers who entered defense contracting since 2008, with 90 percent registering as lobbyists. Lockheed Martin’s chief executive officer is a former Air Force pilot, while a former commander of the Air Force’s 49th Fighter Wing serves on its board of directors. There is evidence that these close relationships are hurting the force. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told the audience of the 2021 Sea Air Space Convention, “Lobbying Congress to buy aircraft we don’t need, that are excess to needs, it’s not helpful.” However, industry’s motivations are less about parochial community interest and more about protecting significant sunk investments in competing capabilities. For example, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are the overwhelming benefactors of the F-35 program, standing to lose if orders are curtailed to fund another capability. However, it is unfair to say that only senior and former aviators resist the expansion of unmanned aviation. Resistance pervades the entire aviation enterprise culture, including the Navy’s premier tactical experts. 

Dogfighting Culture

Aviation culture’s heritage defines its senior leaders’ professional identity, encourages resistance to disruptive technology adoption, and affects the loyalties of junior and mid-grade officers. These younger officers define the future by developing the tactics and driving the evaluation of new capabilities. Naval aviators spend their entire junior officer assignment honing their tactical prowess. Aircrew who demonstrate superior command of their aircraft and astute abilities to teach and debrief tactical concepts receive unique opportunities, such as selections to the Navy Fighter Weapons School or the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, whose graduates (or “patches”) are more likely to be promoted. This rewards the community’s high achievers with positions of advanced responsibility, accountability, and leadership, advancing the community’s interests within the Navy as a whole. As evidence of this reality, the authors conducted a study of their own air wing, discovering the leadership of Carrier Air Wing Two includes four test and 26 weapons school graduates, accounting for nearly 52 percent. This includes the air wing commander, deputy commander, nine squadron commanders and executive officers, and 19 department heads. In contrast, Navy personnel records indicated only 19.9 percent of all naval aviators are test pilots or weapons school graduates. “Patches,” like most leaders, desire to mold up-and-coming junior officers in a similar likeness. This culture-driven mindset stands to reason: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In essence, a pilot’s passionate cultural and professional identity is built through a career of ruthless debriefs meant for algorithmic-like human perfection. This development model perpetuates resistance to change unless the new narrative is self-observed or learned and accepted by the “patch” community. Unfortunately, even a perfect human is easily disrupted by intelligent agents.

In his dissertation, Lt. Col. Scott Cuomo detailed the Marine Corps’ lost decades devoted to protecting the manned aviation modernization plan. This era came after the Marine Corps led the joint force in remotely piloted aviation innovation into the mid-1990s. Despite the pride the service displays about the role of aviation in support of its infantry forces, Cuomo found that protectionist cultures prohibited the adoption of a persistent and armed “Guardian Angel” drone for frontline troops. When it came time to fund a mature and armed remote-piloted capability or to protect the aviation modernization plan, the Marine Corps’ senior aviators doubled down on manned platforms, seemingly dismissing the infantries’ longstanding and urgent combat needs.

Despite the appearance of extensive experimentation, there is “intense cultural resistance” within the armed forces to developing and fielding disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. The author of The Kill Chain lamented, “The real reason why so many truly revolutionary efforts ended underfunded or discarded: they threatened the big, manned legacy systems that formed the identity of the military services.”

This Luddism is influencing the direction of the Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance strike-fighter project, which will decide the future of Navy airpower. The Air Force, with its developmental fighter and bomber projects, is pursuing the “optionally manned” model with the ability to replace human pilots with autonomous technologies as the software becomes viable, but the Navy appears to be steering development decisions as binary, either manned or unmanned. By discounting the optionally manned path, the Navy increases the likelihood of finding autonomous technology immature and inviable — a pretext to justify committing to another manned fighter for decades to come.

It is often stated that when communication pathways are contested or degraded during high-end combat operations, the link between distant mission control centers and their semi-autonomous machines will be unsustainable, rendering autonomous drones ineffective. Intelligent machines capable of high levels of autonomy, according to one aviator and “patch,” are only helpful if teamed with a manned fighter aircraft to facilitate their supervision and direct control. If autonomous drones require manned fighters, then drones cannot threaten the requirement for manned fighter aviation. However, this argument fails to consider studies that show that direct human intervention with collaborative or swarming autonomous drones interferes with their ability to fight effectively. Also, the studies indicated that autonomous systems require little communication with human overseers, retaining effectiveness with up to a 90 percent loss of communications. This challenges the chief reason given for retaining manned fighter control and supervision: proximity for communications-degraded environments. The implication is that an entirely new Navy fighter centerpiece designed to control autonomous drones may be unwarranted. Supervision and control of autonomous systems is platform agnostic. Repurposed current manned platforms with active assembly lines that could be modified to increase range and endurance of later variants, like the E-2 Hawkeye or the F-35 or F/A-18, may be adequate interim autonomous drone mission orchestrators as the technology matures, saving money and development time that could be reinvested into future capabilities.

However, the argument that humans are required to be nearby to provide direct control and approve autonomous drones’ actions is influencing key decision-makers while ignoring the body of evidence. Bias reinforces the belief that aerial combat is so complex, machines are incapable of executing the mission. Impressive technological advances in AI algorithms like AlphaDogfight, a learning algorithm that beat a human fighter pilot five to zero in a simulated dogfight, provides a stark counterpoint. Modern aerial combat is highly computational, relying on a host of onboard sensors and processors to provide the tactical picture to the human pilot. Reactions by the pilot are highly prescribed through preplanned maneuvers, defenses, and weapon employments. The effectiveness of the pilot is based upon deciphering and acting upon algorithm-fused information.

Unfortunately, aviators’ rejection of technological advancements based upon conjecture and preconceived notions is not new. When confronted with overwhelming evidence that does not support established personal beliefs or organizational narratives, there is a natural human disinclination to accept or consider them. Disruptive autonomous aerial technologies are often regarded as unproven, and therefore untrustworthy, because they interfere with established mental models and upset the characteristics against which units are trained to fight. Despite the mounting evidence regarding human limits, growing capabilities of highly automated threat-missile systems, and the value proposition to the carrier’s future, recent statements by the director of the Chief of Naval Operations Air Warfare division demonstrate a preference to stay the course with a manned strike-fighter centerpiece.

Conclusion

Militaries that adapt with autonomous systems stand to disrupt forces limited by their manned strike-fighter centerpieces. The adoption of carrier-borne autonomous drones will upset the contemporary career model, so service leaders need to contemplate: How do you promote or retain talent when software can repeatably execute complex tactics better than your best human operators? What is the new “golden” career path, and which communities will suffer? However, if war is the expression of military ways and means for political ends, then the adoption of disruptive aerial technologies must come from naval aviation leaders’ desire for new ways and means. Waiting for a crisis is a poor decision process, but it is likely the remaining motivator to “eventually” field intelligent autonomous systems. Consider that the aircraft carrier did not replace the battleship as the Navy’s capital ship until after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, despite U.S. carrier aviation existing since 1922, and the Army did not gain a separate tank force until 1950, well after World War II, when it officially replaced the cavalry. The armed forces need to do better.

If the U.S. Navy wants to keep the carrier truly relevant, then reimagining intelligent autonomous drones as a modern combat capability offers promise. But the Navy should also curate the culture for tomorrow’s trusted and informed leaders. The primary purpose of the armed forces is not to protect parochial community interests. It is to credibly deter war, and if committed, to impose political will through violent means. A culture that embraces change will groom resilient and forward-thinking leaders. This is our call to action in the face of growing complexity.

Col. Noah “Spool” Spataro currently serves on the Joint Staff tackling Joint All Domain Command and Control demonstration and assessment challenges. His 23 years of service includes remotely piloted aircraft systems squadron command, aviation command and control, and unmanned aircraft systems capability development.

Lt. Cmdr. Trevor “Mrs.” Phillips-Levine is an F/A-18 Super Hornet naval aviator and department head. He previously served in Naval Special Warfare as a fires support officer and joint terminal attack controller, working with various unmanned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Lt. Cmdr. Andrew “Kramer” Tenbusch is an F/A-18 Super Hornet naval flight officer and student at the U.S. Naval War College’s College of Naval Command and Staff. He is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School and previously served as a carrier air wing integration instructor at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. Additionally, he was a mentor and advisor to the United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group’s inaugural staff, focusing on collective training design and delivery across the remit of carrier strike group mission sets.

The positions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. Seaman Larissa T. Dougherty)

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