Looking Back to Look Forward: Autonomy, Military Revolutions, and The Importance of Cost

31 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2022 Last revised: 30 Dec 2022

See all articles by Jacquelyn Schneider

Jacquelyn Schneider

Stanford University

Julia Macdonald

George Washington University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: January 5, 2022

Abstract

Despite the strong belief that unmanned and autonomous systems will create revolutionary effects on the battlefield, what exactly makes these systems more or less revolutionary is still largely unresolved. For some, autonomy creates speed, precision, range, or decision advantage, creating decisive tactical and operational advantages for states that adopt autonomy appropriately. However, for others, autonomy is a technological substitute for missions that are “dull, dirty, or dangerous.” Too often these narratives elide and autonomous systems become all things, an expensive acquisition hedging strategy in which the US Department of Defense and its armed services invest across a wide array of mission sets and capabilities in the hope that one of these investments will provide some sort of decisive advantage. But this exploratory investment strategy is both expensive and potentially distracts resources and time away from more fruitful uses of unmanned technologies. In this paper, we examine the historical context of technologies and revolutions and argue that most technological characteristics—lethality, range, maneuver, precision—rarely create long term advantages for states. Instead, our analysis shows that for technology to have truly revolutionary effects on the outcomes of war, it has to change the economic and political cost of warfare. Mitigating economic cost helps create mass, increase firepower, and decrease the burden on supporting societies while mitigating political cost allows states to use weapon systems without disenfranchising domestic populations (important for post levee en masse conflicts) or escalating conflicts with adversaries willing to sustain costs over time. We then apply these theories of cost and military revolutions to a range of autonomous systems—including sensors, munitions, and platforms—to advocate a different approach towards the investment and adoption of autonomous systems within modern militaries.

Keywords: drones, competition, conflict, war, military revolution

Suggested Citation

Schneider, Jacquelyn and Macdonald, Julia, Looking Back to Look Forward: Autonomy, Military Revolutions, and The Importance of Cost (January 5, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4001007 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4001007

Jacquelyn Schneider (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Julia Macdonald

George Washington University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Washington, DC 20052
United States

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