Drone wars

Artificial intelligence made the biggest steps forward in regard to perception, but also good progress on decision-making. It appears to be feasible to create a small autonomous robot that can accomplish a mission set by 2030.

The combination of autonomous robots with miniaturization may yield autonomous robots the size of small birds with useful performance. 

Small autonomous drones may be very practical for quantity production. Let's assume that such drones become very effective militarily. The result may be that military power in the 2030's may depend first and foremost on the ability to acquire by production or import millions if not tens of millions of autonomous war drones.

This may spell the end for main battle tanks and other line of sight weapons platforms save for high-flying aircraft: A couple thousand or ten thousands of anti-tank guided missiles were incorrectly predicted to make the concept of main battle tanks obsolete, but millions of tank-penetrating drones would almost certainly make line large and expensive of sight combat platforms obsolete.

What would such autonomous war drones look like?

A basic concept would be a kamikaze killer drone. In concept it would be a kind of missile, albeit with loitering and / or waiting ability, possibly also the ability to recharge itself from the environment. It would detect and identify a target, decide to engage, and likely be consumed by the hit. A shaped charge warhead would be used to penetrate vehicles at known weak spots, and a much smaller EFP-style shaped charge could be used to kill individual troops without the need to close in with it the last few metres.

We will no doubt devise and test, if not deploy, numerous countermeasures ranging from netting to drone-hunting drones. So we can expect drones to replay the growing specialisation of military aircraft. Initially, there were observer aircraft, but the urge to kill was great enough to develop ground attack aircraft almost immediately. This created the need for fighter aircraft. Later we added passive electronic reconnaissance aircraft, active electronic warfare (jamming) aircraft (even different types for different wavelengths), refuelling aircraft, transport aircraft, target practice aircraft, decoy aircraft (typically unmanned) and so on.

We might see such a wide range of autonomous drones as well, and in addition to the task specialization we might also have terrain-specialised types. Drones for urban settings, drones for open fields and drones for woodland could benefit from terrain specialisation for low detectability and endurance. Particularly well-equipped military bureaucracies might also include war drones that could submerge in water and thus hide in lakes, ponds and slow-moving rivers - and exploit the underwater stealth for an approach movement. Other drones may be tasked as stay-behind sabotage drones, and hide under leaves, foliage or even in soft soil.

Operational art may become about layering detection and defence against drones, organising supply & stocks, and deploying large swarms of mission-tailored composition to search, probe, push, occupy and finally meticulously clear out defined areas.
Concentrations of drones would be engaged by classic artillery, but other than that the classic trio of infantry, tanks/cavalry and artillery may be replaced by drones.

The first area to become dominated by drones might be mountainous areas, for the classic trio is the least capable there. Artillery has difficulties to hit reverse slopes, infantry move extremely slowly and tanks cannot negotiate much of the terrain.
Meanwhile, drones could handle such terrain quite easily, though flying drones may require enlarged rotors or wings to compensate for the low density atmosphere at altitude.
The last area to become dominated by drones might be urban terrain, as buildings offer many opportunities to restrict the movement of small drones and an army would want to interact with the civilian population rather than just kill.

Autonomous drones would be a novelty, and both the conservatism of the armed bureaucracies and the political desire to not open Pandora's Box too much might delay the build-up of stocks of such hardware. Rapid technological progress might also render stocks obsolete in a few years, possibly reducing their value to that of decoys. That would be another disincentive to a stocks build-up.
The armed bureaucracies would have much disdain for the drone business, as it wouldn't be soldierly, wouldn't follow what the officers were taught when they were till young, armies would need to think like air forces to grasp the matter, the need for most career officers and their skill sets would vanish and so on.
There are thus many reasons to expect a rather slow build-up, even slow R&D. That is, except in nations whose devious leaders seize on such a land warfare revolution as a means to topple the balance of power and succeed with some war(s) of aggression.

Personally, I see little reason to fear robot wars more than human troops wars. We certainly proved that the latter can turn genocidal and easily break societies, nations, if not cultures. To send out drones to kill is no more anonymous than the movement of division markers on Field Marshall Haig's table or the firing of a 155 mm HE shell by a howitzer crew. War drones won't be able to reproduce themselves, so their threat to mankind would be limited by their numbers even if they turn against their human masters.

There's still the Star Trek-ish scenario of fully automated (or simulated) war becoming all-too easy, but don't we have this problem with wars abroad already anyway?

War might finally cease to be much about morale, and become all about readiness and money.






  1. A short story "Second Variety", by P,K Dick goes through this. Worth a read. There's a movie, "Screamers", not as good though.

    The reason I see escalation along this path quicker than you seem to is the old "gap" thinking, cue Peter Sellers.

    It seems a perfect weapon for China, the yanks have to stretch their fleet train for thousands of miles, which can be easily attacked with swarms of drones. The vast majority of tech industrial capacity is in S.E Asia. If China had a 'fleet in being' of drone swarms it would necessitate a response from yankland. Calling into question the current force structure (and its immense cost). Best of all, this is purely conventional avoiding the soft power hit from ratling a nuclear sabre.

    As you say there is no practical difference in being killed by a 'drone' or a bomb/rocket/shell. The moral shock is a phase, the public will adapt to it. The novelty will wear off.

    The possibilities for terrorists are interesting though. Killer drone swarms released in cities etc... Can't imagine what the statist response to an occurence like that would be. Again though, death is death, the terror induced would due to novelty. ATGMs have been around for decades, perfect tool for political assasinations, though that hasn't happened yet.

  2. "...the yanks have to stretch their fleet train for thousands of miles..."

    Do not be too smug, Asians are renowned for nursing millennia old grudges: rest assured you Europeans are on the PRC "hit list" too.

    With the EU letting Huawei into your 5G back-bone, Europe will be *more* vulnerable to China's long-term machinations than other nations.

    The PRC's Foreign Ministry translates into "dept. of barbarian affairs" for good reason!

    1. I assume you're responding to me, Pkd doode. Okay, so we (europe) fight them too. We (europe) fight the Chinese. Okay.

      Catch 22. The book, or the movie. To think its an easy, or short, endeavour to eat yankland is niave. It'll take a while. My basis is that fundementals will have changed by then, so I am not placed to have an opinion on that.

      PKD is apt though. As is William Gibson. I have a ticket to go see Alien (1979) from the orginal reel, good stuff. Is that going for what we're talking about? Who am I to say?

      If you have to fight, you fight. Was that supposed to be in question? If the PRC have it in for 'us' we fight them. Next?

  3. "With the EU letting Huawei into your 5G back-bone, Europe will be *more* vulnerable to China's long-term machinations than other nations."

    Well. It's widely known that Europe has been spied for decades by US.

    There have been plans of USA for subverting elected European governments. See Gladio affair for example.

    And there are many cases of USA using its intelligence services for robbing industrial secrets in addition to pressure governments to impede defense industry developments.

    Probably China is worse, but not much.

  4. Berlin was a hotbed of spies before Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain”!

    German spying on the USA and industrial espionage against U.S. businesses and research institutions is well documented, was executed by ‘both German nations’ and continued from reunification to the current day.




  5. There are two types of primary drone threats outside of their cardinal classifications of air, sea, or land based chassis which is are they controlled by AI or are they data linked to a network that coordinates their activities?

    Assuming drones were self learning AI there are only a few viable options. The most surefire way is to saturate the area of radiation. Radiation dead lines most computer reliant technologies and is a barrier to both cybernetic and biological actors. The collateral damage from the amount of radiation will be unfeasible other than for a war of eschatological proportions. The other is area of denial electro-magnetic field no go areas that interfere with robotics. More exotic methods would require feeding erroneous data to drones to force them to attack otherwise allied forces by exploiting their communication protocols and data links which is not likely to happen. The most effective counter at the moment is to have an aircraft with jamming capabilities i.e. Tornado ECR just saturate the area and prevent all communications on all bands (which makes it a target itself)

    However based on the quantity and quality of the drones we are talking about this war would easily go nuclear. There is not much choice but to use nuclear weapons on command and control centers that coordinate the drones as the alternate is to lose the war entirely. Those CnC centers will be high profile giving off massive signal outputs that cannot be concealed. Given the logistics of creating that many drones, arming them, fueling them, transporting them, and the maintenance regarding them I would wager it would indeed be cheaper to nuke them if anything. Let us not forget drones in such quantities are extremely short ranged which is exploitable.

    Purely my informed opinion. Regarding European spying on the United States. It is especially effective because of certain American quirks and views on race. Due to historical reasons Americans (white) tend to see themselves as a monolithic racial group in contrast to Europeans who do not necessarily do so but go off national identities. That same can be said of Asians which is why you get ridiculous things like people of Taiwanese descent spying for China. This makes espionage much easier as the typical American without an immigrant background or strong religious affiliation (i.e. Messianic Zionist, Ecumenical Catholic) does not expect such behavior. Most of the time most of the espionage conducted to the Euro side in my opinion is done through mis-classification. Things that are top secret are downgraded against protocol to secret to intelligence aggregation systems and so on. This gives plausible deniability and can be passed off as incompetence while in reality is deliberate. This dangerous lack of paranoia (which should be a cardinal trait of anyone handling government secrets) is absent even onto the highest levels of leadership. For example Hillary Clinton could have gotten a SCIF set up in her own home or back yard. Hired 4 or more contractors to do 24/7 baby sitting or cleric work there and have no EMAIL scandal. Instead....welll......In such a regard I do not believe there are many secrets on the U.S. side that are completely unknown to the EU.

  6. Imo such an warfare for itself is not an problem morally. But it increases imo the possibility to wage war at all. I increases the risk for full warfare. And after such an war startet, it will become extremly difficult to avoid extremist warfare and to end the war with restrictions. Total war would become an higher risk, war would happen more often, faster and would become more total in its targets and its methods. For the same reasons it would increase the risk of nucelar warfare dramatically. As there are several forms of nuclear warfare and most times the combatants would not go to full strategic nuclear bombing, the most logical result from such an drone warfare would be to use emp from nuclear explosions.

    EMP by atmospheric nuclear explosions would end such an drone-force as it is extremly difficult to harden such drones against the emp without to high costs or even impossible.

    So using high altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulses would be imo the inevitable result of such an warfare with all consequences for the civilian population and our civilisation.

    Moreover: as mentioned the state who as first will explore full autonomous drone warfare will have for some time an decisive advantage over all other powers. For this reason alone further or later one of the great powers will explore this kind of warfare. So the Revolution in Military Affairs from this is imo nearer than anticipated by most other people.

  7. Some thoughts:
    The one effect of small drones is the reduction of cover as an advantage for the defender. Hiding means more when sensors/intelligence is more expensive than weapons at the relevant scale of combat.

    Small platforms is less efficient at moving things. As such mass will likely demand use of larger platforms for logistics. Combat would revolve defeating logistics over attrition if at all possible.
    Traditional fast and high air superiority can not directly impact ground hugging micro drone combat, but bomber and transport aircraft can. Tens of thousands of micro drones dropped behind the front can slow down opponent logistics long enough to enable a frontal push.

  8. Indian is having it's Hypersonic missile program, called as The Mrgavyadha ICBM. The manufacturer (HTNP Industries) claims it's speed to be Mach 46

    1. Nobody really talks about the speed of ballistic missiles much. The terminal speed is pretty much correlated with their range, so people talk about range.

  9. My only quibble is that fighter aircraft were not introduced to shoot down ground attack aircraft, but rather to prevent enemy artillery observation from balloons and aircraft and soon thereafter to prevent the enemy attacking their balloons and spotter aircraft. You also had the allies attempting to shoot down strategic bomber airships quite early on. Dedicated ground attack aircraft did exist in WW1, but quite late. Shamefully, the RAF deployed one in WW1 but did not in WW2.