Steve Blank Technology, Innovation and the Great Power Race – Part 6 – Unmanned Systems and Autonomy


This article originally appeared on the West Point Institute of Modern Warfare.


We’ve just finished the sixth week of the new National Security Class at Stanford – Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition. Joe Felter, Raj Shah, and I designed the class to cover how technology is shaping behavior and employment. All tools National power.

In Unit 1, we learned that national power is the sum of all the resources a country has to pursue its national goals and interests. This power is a combination of a country’s diplomacy, intelligence, military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence and law enforcement. These instruments of national power, employed in a “whole of government approach” to promote the interests of the state, are known by the acronym DME.– FIL

Part 2 focused on China, the US’s primary superpower competitor. China uses all of its national power, such as information/intelligence, military power and economic strength, as well as Western finance and technology. China’s aim is to challenge and reverse the US-led liberal international order and replace it with its own neo-totalitarian model. China is emerging as a regional and global power.

The third part is focused on Russia, which since 2014 has proven itself as a competitive great power. We learned how Russia pursues security and economic interests in parallel with its ideological goals.

The fourth section turns our attention to the impact of commercial technologies on national energy equipment (DIME-FIL) equipment. It was the first technology that we investigated semiconductors, And America’s dependence on TSMC in Taiwan, for its most advanced logic chips. China claims that Taiwan is a Chinese territory, and this is problematic.

In the fifth section, we explored the impact of AI and machine learning on DIME-FIL’s capabilities and performance. We heard from the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), a focal point of the DOD AI strategy; and from the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – a DoD organization that works with commercial companies to solve national security problems.

Today’s Episode: Unmanned platforms And Autonomy

Catch up on the episode by reading our introduction to the episode and summaries of Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5


Important reading

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

  • Helen Warrell, “From Desert Storm to Suleimani: How the US Drone War Has Changed.” Financial Times2020.
  • Kelly Sailer, “The Expanded World of Drones: A Technology Primer.” For the new American security center2015.
  • Paul Share et al., “Why Drones Are Still the Future of War: Soldiers Learn to Trust Them.” Foreign affairs2018.
  • Eric Linn-Greenberg, “The Game of Drones: What Test Wars Show About Drones and Escalation.” War on the rocks2019.
  • David Hamming, “What Are Drone Swarms and Why Does Every Soldier Suddenly Want One?” Forbes2021.
  • Video “Slaughter Bots” Stop Autonomous Devices – YouTube2017.

Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) / ​​Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UUV)

Concepts of American drone warfare

China’s Unmanned Warfare Concepts

The use of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh

Reading assignment questions

Choose one of the following questions and answer in approximately 100 words based on the required reading.

  1. Describe how the advent of autonomous weapon systems (ie, drones) has changed the way America fights today. What changes do you recommend America pursue as autonomous systems continue to be built?
  2. Choose a combat domain (eg air, land, sea, undersea, space, etc.). How do autonomous weapons systems for major powers, minor powers, or non-state actors (choose one of the three) threaten America’s traditional military interests in that domain?

Part 6 – guest Speakers and autonomy panel

This session had seven guest speakers on unmanned systems and autonomy.

Our first guest speaker was Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research, United States Navy. Admiral Selby is in charge of the Naval Research Organization. The Navy and the Marine Corps are “venture capital.” It consists of ONR – Office of Naval Research, ONR Global, Naval Research Laboratory and Special Projects (PMR 51.).

(Established in August 1946 when WWII government funding for universities dried up, ONR supported research at universities. Fred Terman, Stanford’s dean of engineering received ONR’s first research grants for electronics and microwaves. (These grants funded Stanford’s Electronics Research Lab and launched innovation in what became Silicon Valley.) Fast forward to this decade and ONR is the first Stanford to fund hacking for the Defense Department, and Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center is the first funder for national security. Creativity.

RADM Selby described the core of Naval Research, the types of innovation, ONR’s role in capturing new/relevant ideas and absorbing them quickly to compete with adversaries, but not hinder the Navy’s mission.

Our next guest is Maynard Holliday, DOD Director of Defense Research and Engineering Modernization (5G, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Autonomy, Biotechnology, Cyber, Directed Energy, Fully Networked Command, Control and Communications, Hypersonics, Microelectronics, Quantum Science, and interval). He described the office’s role as similar to that of DARPA. Its 11 executive directors set technical roadmaps for the DoD and help transform technologies into practical applications.

Dr. Jarrett C. Riddick, DoD Modernization Director for Autonomy, then joined us. He helped the unit understand DoD’s definition of autonomy, the lines of effort DoD is actively pursuing and why it was important.

Lesson 6

If you are unable to view the lecture, click here for 6 slides.

Unmanned systems and autonomy are advancing rapidly in the Department of Defense. In two panel sessions we gave the students a feel for the breadth of the movement.

Panel 1 – Autonomous / Unmanned Systems Research and Engineering

RADM Selby, Mr Holliday and Mr Riddick joined a panel discussion on how their organizations set research priorities and investment strategies. They discussed.

  1. When deciding which technologies to invest in, their firms consider the time horizon.
  2. How these investment strategies and timing opportunities compare and contrast with similar proposals in China and Russia
  3. What does the future of autonomous systems look like? They hope to invest the largest profits in their companies’ autonomy
  4. What Ethical Considerations When Investing in Technology Do China and/or Russia have similar or different ethical considerations? How do these ethical frameworks affect America’s competitiveness?

Panel 2 – Autonomy Application – Navy Unmanned task force

Four other experts in the Defense Department are Michael Stewart, the deputy chief of naval operations for unmanned task force, director of the U.S. Navy’s unmanned task force and deputy director for integrated warfare; Bradley Garber, Deputy Director of Naval Operations/Chief Civilian Counsel; Dr. Jason Stack, Naval Research Portfolio for Autonomy; and Dr. Shane Arnott, Chief Engineer, Andreal Industries. They discussed.

  1. The motivation for the creation of their forces
  2. The biggest challenges and opportunities for autonomy from the private sector to support the DoD
  3. What does the future of autonomous systems look like? The biggest profit their companies hope to invest in autonomy
  4. Where China and/or Russia are making the biggest gains with autonomous systems. What a threat this poses to US interests.

next week: The Second Space Age: The Great Power Race in Space

Lessons learned

  • Autonomous and unmanned systems are critical technologies that affect all aspects of DIME-FIL’s national force equipment.
    • Although more autonomous work is taking place in the DoD ecosystem, commercial companies and universities still lead
    • China and Russia have made autonomous and unmanned systems a national priority
    • Other countries, such as Turkey and Israel, have developed systems used to win wars
  • The Navy is actively looking to build and integrate unmanned/autonomous systems as part of its fleet.


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