Rethinking the Role of Remotely Crewed Systems in the Future Force

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  • One of the promises of remotely crewed systems is that they could be a force multiplier for the military, either allowing it to increase force structure without a proportionate increase in personnel or to reduce personnel without cutting overall force structure.
  • As remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) have been adopted into the military in large numbers for airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (AISR), they have demonstrated much higher utilization rates and lower personnel and operating costs on a per-aircraft and a per-flying-hour basis than crewed AISR aircraft.
  • However, high demand from the combatant commands has prevented overall reductions in personnel and operating costs or the substitution of RPAs for crewed AISR aircraft.
  • For remotely crewed systems to become an affordable and scalable alternative to crewed systems across all domains, the U.S. military will need to rethink how units are staffed, organized, and trained to better leverage automation and develop new concepts for in-garrison operations.
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard
In the wake of the cuts driven by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), many senior military and political leaders lamented the effects these cuts were having on the U.S. military. In a major speech on national security during the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump called for significant increases in the military and promised to “submit a new budget to rebuild our military.” Specifically, he called for a Navy of 350 ships, an active-duty Army of 540,000 soldiers, a Marine Corps of 36 active component infantry battalions, and an Air Force with 1,200 active component fighters.1 The Navy later refined this goal to 355 ships, and the Air Force broadened its target to 386 squadrons overall.

With the help of two budget deals that raised the level of the budget caps imposed by the BCA, the defense budget grew by 12.7 percent, adjusting for inflation, from FY 2016 through the high reached in FY 2019. Despite this budget increase and the Trump administration’s desire for a larger force, the size of the military did not grow in proportion to the budget. From FY 2016 to FY 2019, the number of ships in the Navy grew by 5.5 percent, the number of active-duty soldiers in the Army grew by 1.9 percent, the number of Marine Corps infantry battalions did not change, and the number of aircraft in the Air Force inventory fell by 0.1 percent.

In its FY 2021 budget request, the Department of Defense (DoD) all but abandoned its plans to grow. The Navy reversed its plans to extend the life of existing destroyers, which was key to reaching 355 ships by FY 2034; the Marine Corps announced plans to eliminate major parts of its force structure; and the Air Force never submitted a budget aligned to its 386-squadron goal. With a five-year budget projection that is essentially flat with inflation, the DoD is instead looking for efficiency savings and reforms to free up funds within its budget to accommodate growing operation and sustainment costs for existing forces and lagging modernization needs.

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