Hudson Institute

Unalone and Unafraid: A Plan for Integrating Uncrewed and Other Emerging Technologies into US Military Forces

Senior Fellow, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel and the guided-missile destroyer USS Delbert D. Black (DDG 119) operate in the Arabian Gulf on January 8, 2023. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeremy R. Boan)

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During the Cold War, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) led global research and development (R&D) and in the process created what are now commonplace technologies, including the internet, precision weapons, and the global positioning system. However, since then the DoD has struggled to incorporate new advancements as initiatives to transform the force or implement a new offset strategy have failed to substantially change the US military’s design or capability development processes. In large part, the DoD’s adoption difficulties result from the center of technological innovation shifting from governments to the private sector, increasingly making the military a technology customer rather than a creator. This is the case with artificial intelligence (AI) and uncrewed systems, which are already upending long-standing approaches to modern warfare. The challenge of integrating these new technologies, many of which are commercially derived, therefore provides a good case study for how the DoD could reform its processes and organizations for innovation. To that end, this study evaluates how the US military could realize more timely development, deployment, and integration of relevant uncrewed systems, and illustrates its proposed methods using examples from the US Navy.

The Navy and DoD will need the operational advantages that AI-enabled uncrewed vehicles could offer. Against a resident major power like the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the US military cannot continue to rely on its historical dominance to deter and defeat aggression. Instead, the DoD will need to attack the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategy of system destruction warfare by fielding a force that is less predictable, more adaptable, and increasingly resilient. Uncrewed systems could enable such an approach by unlocking the operational innovation of US servicemembers, who could—like their counterparts in Ukraine today—use uncrewed systems to grow the variety of tactics and effects chains that they can employ, which could undermine PLA planning and concepts and afford US forces the capacity to sustain a protracted conflict.

The ability of uncrewed systems to provide resilience and adaptability depends on scale. A small fleet of vehicles cannot be simultaneously applied against multiple mission threads or effects chains and will lack the capacity to support extended operations. Uncrewed systems can enable scale by foregoing robust self-defense and focusing on a narrow set of functions to lower their cost and complexity. These limitations will require that uncrewed systems be combined with other uncrewed systems and crewed platforms in systems of systems (SoS), which could exacerbate the US military’s long-standing struggles to integrate forces between and within each service branch. Realizing the benefits of uncrewed systems will therefore demand that the DoD establish routinized processes for integrating new mission threads and SoS. Otherwise, the US military services will only be able to field individual uncrewed systems that replace crewed platforms in existing use cases.

US military services are already attempting to improve their ability to integrate SoS through initiatives in experimentation, rapid acquisition, digital interoperability, and Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). However, as this report describes for the US Navy, these efforts tend to focus on long-term service objectives rather than near-term operational problems and use a top-down process of systems engineering to guide requirements for future capabilities. This traditional approach assumes that the US military has the time to develop new systems and retains a substantial technological edge over its rivals, but neither condition is likely to endure in the context of the US-PRC competition. 

To bring uncrewed systems into the force more quickly and gain the resulting operational advantages, the DoD will need to flip its traditional acquisition approach and adapt US military tactics or mission threads so they can integrate uncrewed systems that are available today. This bottom-up method of “mission integration” contrasts with the DoD’s predominant approach of systems engineering and reflects best practices emerging in commercial manufacturing or distribution, where the fastest and most effective way to assimilate robotics is to adjust the organization’s workflow as opposed to developing robots that replace humans in existing workflows.

To evolve the DoD’s current processes and implement mission integration, this study recommends the following reforms:

1. Formalize a mission integration process that would conduct the functions of SoS development described in chapter 4 to address near-term combatant commander operational problems.

Each of the services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) should conduct six functions to more quickly field new SoS, which will almost universally incorporate uncrewed elements:

  • Problem definition—working with operational commanders to identify and articulate their key operational problems
  • Solution development and experimentation—assessing ways to address operational problems using new concepts and fielded or available technology 
  • Material procurement—obtaining needed systems and vehicles for experimentation and initial fielding of prototype SoS
  • Digital integration—combining SoS elements in mission threads that are useful in military contexts
  • Resourcing and requirements—Funding mission integration activities and validating the results of successful prototype experiments to enable acquisition 
  • Operational refinement—Assessing prototype SoS in the field to validate requirements and refine systems over time.

While mission integration would be the main path for fielding new uncrewed systems, the services should continue their processes of systems engineering and requirements generation to satisfy projected long-term needs for crewed platforms and other capital investments.

2. Establish an Innovation Office as the resource sponsor for SoS development and manager of the mission integration process.

The Innovation Office would need funding across multiple appropriation categories and the ability to validate requirements in concert with the appropriate service or Joint Staff offices. In the near term, the DoD could create an Innovation Office by reorganizing existing service or DoD organizations and their associated funding. Over the longer term, the DoD should assign the Innovation Office funding in broad program element (PE) lines, like those it uses in defense-wide R&D or those that the portfolio budgeting model proposes, to enable a prompt transition of promising SoS into procurement and fielding.

3. Create DevOps program manager (PM) roles in service program executive offices (PEOs) and in OSD.

DevOps PMs would help synchronize and accelerate the mission integration process by contracting for a variety of services and procurement or by moving funding to other government offices to support analysis and experimentation. The services should establish DevOps PMs to support mission integration efforts within each PEO that oversees uncrewed systems, and OSD should establish a PM role for joint mission threads within the Office of the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering (OUSD R&E) or the Office of the Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment (OUSD A&S).

The establishment of DevOps PM roles will mark a significant cultural shift by bringing acquisition professionals into the experimentation and requirements process. However, connecting experimentation and acquisition is appropriate when available technologies are able to meet current and near-term military needs and when a more rapid introduction of new capabilities is essential to gaining an operational advantage.

4. Create ecosystem PM roles in service PEOs and in the OSD.

Software is increasingly the source of military capability and advantage in new weapons, mission systems, and vehicles. Software is also the mechanism by which military forces integrate today, much as past generations integrated through doctrine and procedure. The DoD should establish PMs in each acquisition PEO to manage the development and maintenance of SoS software environments.

Ecosystem PMs would own government interfaces that connect vehicle, mission system, and command and control (C2) software and would oversee the integration of new systems into the ecosystem. Rather than taking more software development work into the government, the establishment of ecosystem PMs would enable the government to manage and oversee software development efforts by vendors, including software factories that maintain command, control, and communications (C3) environments and execute gauntlets through which new system providers demonstrate their ability to digitally integrate with the ecosystem.

In an environment where dominance is no longer a given, the US military needs to return to operational innovation. Historically, US forces have excelled when given the tools and processes to improvise and be creative. Many of the pieces they need to enable effective innovation through mission integration are already in place. Accelerating and realizing the benefits of uncrewed systems will require better orchestration and execution of these activities to solve today’s operational problems. If the Navy and DoD fail to do so, they may miss their best opportunity to gain an enduring advantage against peer opponents like China.