The Tiny and Nightmarishly Efficient Future of Drone Warfare
Russia’s war on Ukraine has given us just a peek of the world to come.
On Saturday, October 29, a Russian fleet on the Black Sea near Sevastopol was attacked by 16 drones—nine in the air and seven in the water. Purportedly launched by Ukraine, no one knows how much damage was done, but video shot by the attacking drones showed that the vessels were unable to avoid being hit. In response to that and other successful attacks, Russia has retaliated with scores of missiles and Iranian-built Shahed-136 drones aimed at electrical and water systems throughout Ukraine.
Despite daily reports of lands taken or lands liberated in the nine-month war, the conflict has been largely fought in the air, with artillery shells, rockets, cruise missiles, and, increasingly, drones.
Small, cheap, relatively slow-moving, carrying far less of a wallop than a cruise missile or a 500-pound bomb, the Shaheds in particular have bedeviled Ukraine’s otherwise excellent air defenses. Preprogrammed with a target and released in groups of five, the triangular, propeller-driven drones are relatively easy to destroy—if you can find them. They fly low and slow enough to be mistaken on radar for migrating birds. If launched in bunches, as the Russians have been doing, enough are able to evade even the best defenses to do substantial damage. In October, Ukraine estimated that it was shooting down 70 percent or more of the Shaheds, but the ones they missed were enough to debilitate the nation’s electrical grid.
The attacks have continued. Intelligence officials say that Russia has sent 400 Iranian-made attack drones since August. Although that’s a small number relative to the thousands of missiles bombarding the country, intercepting drones flying in bunches can be more difficult. Drones also cost less to manufacture and can be sent in ever-increasing numbers. By early November, Ukraine was already in danger of running out of air-defense missiles to combat them.
Speaking in mid-November, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov said, “In the last two weeks, we have been convinced once again the wars of the future will be about maximum drones and minimal humans.”
What might that future actually look like? For years, military strategists have anticipated the arrival of the so-called drone swarm, a large cluster of small flying machines that will herald a new era of intelligent warfare. Thousands of robotic aircraft no bigger than a starling would be all but invisible when spread out, yet capable of instantly coalescing into a swirling dark cloud, like a murmuration. It would move the way such phenomena move in nature, guided by a kind of group intellect.
“A swarm is an intelligent organism and an intelligent mechanism,” Samuel Bendett, an expert in Russian weapons at the Center for Naval Analyses, told me. “In a swarm—just like in an insect swarm, in a bird swarm, in a school of fish—each drone thinks for itself, communicates with the others, and shares information about its position in a swarm, the environment that the swarm is in, potential threats coming at the swarm, and what to do about it, especially when it comes to changes in direction or changes in swarm composition.”
The weapons deployed in Ukraine by both sides are still far from the full nightmare potential. A swarm would use artificial intelligence to allow individual drones to behave autonomously while also harnessing the wisdom of the collective. David Hambling, in his 2015 book, Swarm Troopers, reported that software engineers had already been able to simulate those great swarms in nature by programming drones with three simple instructions: separate, or keep a certain minimum distance from others; align, or stay on the same course as your neighbors; and cohere, or attempt to move toward the average position of your neighbor. So instructed, drone swarms would move in clouds that function as a single entity, perhaps widely dispersed at first, hiding them from radar, only to converge on a target at the last minute. The swarm would be capable of reacting to threats without human intervention—changing course, speed, or altitude, maneuvering around heavily protected air spaces—and could absorb huge losses without stopping. Machines do not get discouraged and turn back.
“This is the holy grail,” Bendett said. “This is what everybody’s working towards. By everybody, I mean advanced countries and advanced militaries hoping to utilize swarm technologies. So the list is short, but it’s slowly growing. Of course, it’s the United States, it’s Israel, it’s China, it’s Russia, it’s Turkey, it’s Iran, and perhaps a handful of other states like India and South Korea.”
Such research programs are classified, but many military analysts see them arriving in the near future. A swarm of 103 micro-drones designed by MIT with a wingspan less than a foot long was successfully launched by the U.S. in 2016, a project sponsored by the Department of Defense. The individual drones were so small and flew so fast that a CBS camera crew trying to film the experiment had a hard time capturing an image of the swarm even with high-speed cameras.
When you consider that a drone swarm consisting of many thousands of off-the-shelf drones would cost less than, say, one F-35 fighter or a ballistic missile, you have a weapon that would give rogue states or terrorist groups the means to launch devastating attacks or assassinations anywhere in the world. Since the Korean War, American forces have controlled the skies wherever they have gone into battle. No other nation had the means to compete with it; the cost, the technology, the experience, and the level of training required are beyond the reach of even the most affluent nation-states. Drone swarms could end that domination. An aircraft carrier? A commercial airliner? The White House? The president? Sitting ducks.
Imagining a perfected drone swarm, the science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes in his novel The Ministry for the Future:
They were more powerful than the atomic bomb, in this very particular sense: you could use them. And they couldn’t be stopped ... They were small, they launched from mobile launchers, they came from all directions in a coordinated attack in which they only congregated at their target in the last few second of their flights.
By making nearly any target indefensible, Robinson imagines, such swarms—he calls them “pebble mobs”—would render war “impossible.” What he means is the kind of total war waged against entire civilizations. He envisions drone swarms bringing us to an era of warfare between competing robot armies, though today Russia is using its drone groups to attack civilian targets.
Once the technology is within reach, someone, somewhere will build it, and once built, it will follow the rule of Chekhov’s gun—if it appears, it will be used. AI weapons have already been deployed—the Israeli Harpy drone, for instance, which loiters in the air over a contested space and is programmed to acquire and destroy targets. And although the destructive power of the atom bomb has so far prevented its use in all-out war, a drone swarm will be used once developed, because it is not a cataclysmic weapon. It is, as Robinson notes, a useful one. Although the explosive punch of small, cheap drones is insignificant compared with that of conventional bombs and missiles, they can be much more accurate. One would be enough to kill a person. Precisely targeted, even a small number could destroy crucial parts of a modern warship’s defenses. The damage done to, say, an aircraft carrier by a drone swarm might not sink it, but could strip away its sensors and weapons, making it a fat target for larger munitions.
The emergence of drone swarms might also fully usher in AI battlefields, where the decision to shoot or explode needs to be made faster than humans can react. To insert a human into the decision chain would defeat the purpose. As Kai-Fu Lee wrote in this magazine last year, “The prowess of autonomous weapons largely comes from the speed and precision gained by not having a human in the loop. This debilitating concession may be unacceptable to any country that wants to win the arms race.” And once a drone swarm is flying, knocking it off one unit at a time would demand the speed and accuracy of a laser guided by a supercomputer. Such full-on AI warfare has long been a theme in dystopian science fiction, perhaps most popularly depicted in the string of Terminator movies.
Of course, what all of these nightmares neglect is the notion of countermeasures, the second crucial element in the evolution of warfare. When a new weapon or tactic appears, so will a way to defeat it. Ukraine has been experimenting on the battlefield with a Lithuanian-designed defense called SkyWiper, which thwarts drones in flight by jamming their communications. Lithuania’s defense ministry, according to The New York Times, has sent 50 to Ukraine after the embattled nation named them as “one of the top priorities.”
But the most useful tool for Ukraine’s defenders is far less high-tech: machine guns. The Shahed’s propeller makes enough noise to alert ground troops as it passes overhead, and is vulnerable to coordinated fire. The drones have also been destroyed by fighter planes and air-to-air missiles, but that’s like driving a nail with a Cartier watch. The average Shahed costs about $20,000, whereas even the lowest-cost surface-to-air missile (still under development) will run closer to $150,000, a sum that does not include the multimillion-dollar system required to operate it. When cheap, off-the-shelf drones fly in large numbers, such cost disparity becomes ridiculous and unsustainable.
Last year Congress directed the Pentagon to develop a counterforce for small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and budgeted almost $750 million for them. The newly created office’s director, Army Major General Sean Gainey, has said that the reliance on drones in Ukraine added urgency to his mission: “I think it’s bringing more to light of what we already know—that when you scale this capability from a small quadcopter all the way up … it really shows the importance of having counter-UAS at scale.”
For its part, the U.S. Army is experimenting with using large airbursts or electromagnetic pulses to guard against the eventual emergence of the drone swarm. The U.S. Navy’s High Energy Laser weapons system, and those under development by major defense contractors—Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and others—use AI to very rapidly target and destroy incoming drones one by one, potentially enough to disable a swarm. Such a weapon would be more useful at sea or over an open battlefield than over cities, where most combat in the modern era takes place. Air traffic over large cities is busy, so pinpointing a relatively small and dangerous intruder without knocking down friendly aircraft is hard. To help this effort, the Army’s Joint Counter Small Unmanned Aerial System Office is looking at ways to adapt existing air-traffic-control networks to spot anomalous flight patterns.
One of these countermeasures, or one as yet unforeseen, will work, and drone swarms are not likely to wipe out America’s arsenal. They will, however, fundamentally alter the way we fight. The machine gun did not end war, but it did permanently change it. Five newly invented Maxim machine guns were enough to slaughter more than 1,000 charging Matabele warriors when the British South Africa Company invaded tribal lands in present-day Zimbabwe in 1893.
By World War I, machine guns had driven infantry underground. Armies fought from deep trench networks that spanned the entire European continent. Eventually tanks, armored vehicles, attack aircraft, and big changes in infantry tactics evolved to counter the weapon, but the machine gun is still the mainstay of ground combat. The standard-issue infantry weapon worldwide is a machine gun.
Just as militaries adapted to heavy machinery and the trench, they will find a solution here. One of the most intriguing drone-swarm countermeasures is being tested by D-Fend, an Israeli contractor. It has been able to hack the guidance software of a small-drone swarm and redirect it harmlessly off course. Software is just code, and code is hackable. But even in this, science fiction has gotten there first.
There is a particularly chilling 2016 episode of the British TV series Black Mirror called “Hated in the Nation.” Set slightly in the future, the episode features tiny drones that have been loosed by the millions for a purely beneficial reason—to do the essential work of vanishing bees, spreading pollen from flower to flower. But the bees’ software is hacked. Its new controllers link them to a website where people name the most reviled person in the country. At the end of each day, the reprogrammed drones/bees form a lethal swarm to converge on and kill the person at the top of the list.
This illustrates the principle that whatever technology emerges, its use, for better or worse, will be determined by human beings.