Monday, July 27, 2015

Unmanned Aircraft’s Disruptive Impact on the USAF

     Unmanned aircraft have been described as a disruptive technology to manned aircraft and that has been the case in USAF.  The USAF has been resisting the adoption of unmanned aircraft into many of the core missions.  This has the potential to create a strategic disadvantage as adversaries adopt low cost technically sufficient unmanned platforms to perform missions.  Traditionally, the USAF has approach to modernization has been to improve sustaining technology vs pursuing disruptive technology.   Defense contractors that offered unmanned aircraft in the early 2000’s had trouble gaining traction with the USAF and the only unmanned aircraft available when the war on terror kicked off after September 11 were technology demonstrators.  These were quickly ramped up, but mostly due to customer (in this case combatant commanders) demand and direction from the DoD.  There have been continuing efforts to downplay the importance and capability of unmanned aircraft over manned aircraft.  In the case of the USAF, Principle #4 An Organization’s Capabilities Define Its Disabilities, identified in The Innovator’s Dilemma is a major reason why this occurred and continues to occur.  The book identifies that despite assigning the right people to the task, an organizations process and values make it difficult for them to succeed in successfully cultivating disruptive technologies.  The USAF was created as an independent service primarily by pilots and has long been run by pilots who have a love of flying.  Unmanned aircraft threaten both the culture and the passion of many USAF leaders and make it very difficult to replace manned aircraft with unmanned aircraft. 
     The Innovator’s Dilemma highlights the risk of not responding to disruptive technology.  As low cost disruptive technology increases performance, it takes more investment to improve sustaining technologies advantage while the cost of the disruptive technology may decline as production scales.  It will only be a matter of time before unmanned aircraft can perform all the missions that manned aircraft can perform at an acceptable level.  When this occurs, peers/adversaries will be able to employ this destructive technology in greater numbers and gain a strategic advantage.  To compete, the USAF needs to change its culture to accept unmanned aircraft or it will lose the dominant position it has maintained since the early 1970s in air warfare.

Ted Anderson, tbanders

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