The Pentagon’s interest in unmanned systems appears to be waning with the conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the military must continue to invest in the technology to maintain an edge over other countries pursuing the capabilities, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

AeroVironment's Puma. Photo by AeroVironment
AeroVironment’s Puma. Photo by AeroVironment

“Despite its commanding head start in the acquisition and use of unmanned systems, the U.S. lead is at risk in the decades ahead,” the report said. “U.S. strategists and policymakers have not taken sufficient steps to continue to exploit the military-technical revolution underway.”

The report,

Sustaining the U.S. Lead in Unmanned Systems, said that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the United States has led the way in developing advanced unmanned systems like air vehicles used in the wars as well as to go after al-Qaeda in numerous regions. The report said the Pentagon as of last July possessed about 11,000 unmanned systems in various forms, including large and small UAVs as well as ground-and sea-based systems.

While the Pentagon has been effective in exploiting the capability of unmanned systems, it remains unclear if the military is looking to develop new concepts of operations for the systems rather than viewing the current ones in the fleet as a “leftover capability from the ‘last war’ requirements,” the report said.

The study suggested that the Pentagon has been re-orientating itself to major, manned platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and shipbuilding programs while not giving due attention to the role of unmanned systems in future operations.

“Unfortunately, it is increasingly uncertain if the United States will realize this potential,” the report said.

The report by Samuel Brannen, a fellow at CSIS and former special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, noted that the Pentagon spending in unmanned research and development over the last two years and substantially declined. Brannen said spending on R&D from FY ’13-’14 will fall by about 33 percent, a figure disproportionate to the eight percent reduction in R&D spending across the Pentagon.

Further, Brannen said that outside the possibility of top secret programs, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have no major existing programs of record for unmanned aerial vehicles for which a budget has been allotted. While the Navy is developing the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft, and the Air Force’s next-generation bomber will likely have an unmanned option, they are still not fully budgeted.

“None of these is yet a program of record with associated budget,” the report said.

Brannen said other countries are pursuing the technology and capitalizing on the relative ease of acquiring the know-how from the commercial market and could challenge U.S. dominance in the area.

“At least 18 countries are developing their own indigenous production capacity and dozens more are seeking to acquire (unmanned systems), leveraging second mover advantage in what they have learned from observing U.S. systems and operations over the past decade,” Brannen wrote.