Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Lift Off: Scaling Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Autonomous Capabilities for the U.S. Department of Defense

| January 2024

In this new era of strategic competition, the Department of Defense (DoD) must rapidly scale emerging and innovative technologies to maintain U.S. global leadership. However, due to its antiquated acquisition systems, the U.S. military risks falling behind its adversaries in delivering cutting-edge and emerging capabilities to warfighters. 

This challenge is especially evident for scaling autonomous technologies, which have been identified by the DoD as a critical technology area. With the most advanced capabilities existing outside of traditional acquisition partners, the DoD’s process for fielding and scaling new capabilities is too slow and complex to acquire essential technologies at the speed of relevance. Despite the high interest and significant efforts from across the DoD, rapid and effective scaling of many emerging autonomous technologies remains elusive.

Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Small UAS), a critical autonomous technology in modern warfare that has encountered significant challenges in effective scaling, are the primary focus of this report. In an era of great power competition, small UAS has become a strategic capability that fills critical joint warfighting gaps. However, scaling small UAS presents a significant challenge for the DoD. 

This report identifies challenges faced by the DoD in attempting to scale small UAS capabilities to the warfighter and advances five key policy recommendations for the DoD to more effectively deliver high-impact small UAS solutions to the warfighter at the speed of relevance. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saunders, Bethan. “Lift Off: Scaling Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Autonomous Capabilities for the U.S. Department of Defense.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 2024.

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