Drone art of war


Drones are becoming smaller, lighter, cheaper for the same performance. They're also very likely to become smarter - smart enough that small, cheap, quantity-produced drones will exceed today's autonomy of killer drones and be able to identify and classify targets and make not only an attack decision, but also tailor an attack manoeuvre to the situation.

Drones will not only gain time to find targets by loitering, but also by simply sitting on vantage point from whence they can approach the next location or a target by ground or by air. There might even be drones that will use inland waters to hide.

What's going to be the art of war in an age of autonomous killer drones?

(1) A seemingly eternal rule in war is that no novelty is total. Never did one novelty become the only way of fighting.* Armies did not transform into all-machinegunner armies. Not all field army vehicles are tracked and armoured. Submarines did not become the only warships, Jules Verne's opinion didn't matter. Missiles did not replace aircraft fully. It's in my opinion a good call to expect autonomous war (killer) drones to co-exit with traditional forms of warfare.

(2) Specialised assets rise as a form of warfare becomes more sophisticated, but generalist assets prevail and in parallel. The benefits of specialization are huge, but limited and the uncertainty about the face of the next war makes versatility an important risk management approach.

(3) A look back at the early days of military aviation may help to anticipate how the flying autonomous drone armies will play out:

First, planes were used for observation and a little ground attack. Then the countermeasure of fighters appeared. Observers were armed for self-defence, and some evaded the fighter threat by flying very high. Bombers were armed as well, also armoured later, some also evaded to greater altitude or into the night and generally they received armour. Fighters responded by flying faster, higher, getting more armour, more firepower and sometimes sensors for night intercepts. Specialist aircraft appeared in WW2 for electronic warfare and pathfinding at night. Eventually, there were dedicated electronic reconnaissance aircraft, area search radar aircraft and tanker aircraft.

We might very well see reconnaissance drones that are semi-autonomous (radio link to user preferred, but able to scout autonomously until radio link is re-established) first, soon complemented by optionally autonomous killer drones of varying sizes.** Fighter drones with optimization for finding and killing other drones will appear, and the killer drone swarms will have to adapt with self-defence (not so easy for kamikaze drones, they can mostly counter by being cheaper than the fighters), better camouflage and concealment, more speed, agility and acceleration. 

Specialist drones may appear for radio relay function, electronic reconnaissance, electronic attack, maybe even entrapment (hunting other drones like spiders with webs). Picket (early warning) drones may also come into existence, forming a detection corridor and a screen around human troops. Confirmation drones may appear that hurry to inspect and confirm a suspected hostile contact with better sensors than kamikaze or even sniper drones have (or by going real close while being cheap). Command & control drones with superior AI may serve as forward commander to a swarm that's got no reliable radio comm to a HQ with humans.

There might even be civilian interaction drones that advise and guide civilians to safety, maybe even prisoners of war.

Drones may differentiate into high altitude drones (flying so high that no missile or gun can economically kill them), above-treetop altitude drones, below treetop drones and drones which can even enter buildings and do their job indoors.

USAF strike packages often had no more than 40% of their aircraft carrying munitions to strike the actual target. All else was support and escort. Drone swarms may in my opinion range from 10...90% support, and the difference would come from the task; a terrain control swarm would have few strike drones, whereas a main effort swarm meant to annihilate large forces in a small area might 'zerg' with huge quantities of strike drones either saturating or held in reserve.

(4) It would be nice if we would simply ban the use of autonomous killer drones like NBC weapon use became taboo, but so far the governments focus on what advantages drones offer to themselves. Loitering munitions with partial autonomy are blurring the transition to autonomous killer drones.

Armed bureaucracies have a great potential for conservatism and sluggishness and are not good with money. They have a high risk to resist de-humanisation of war out of selfishness and overestimation of human capabilities. They also have a high risk of focusing resources on basic types of drones (scout & strike), and becoming overmatched by an aggressor that invested in more sophisticated swarms. This may even happen after they understand the issue, as pre-war funding for a drone war is all but guaranteed to be too small given the establishment self-interest of other force structure components.

(5) Force structure and tech isn't everything. Concepts of operation matter greatly. 

Drone swarms could span the entire theatre of war or be segmented into multiple swarms. Either way, rules for interaction, cooperation, coordination and geographic limitations are necessary. Rules of engagement would be all-important.

You could also apply the concept of main effort, for example to gain supremacy in a geographic bottleneck, or at your capital, maybe at an important port or to gain dominating heights for heavy ground-based electronic warfare equipment to use. Too great concentrations of drones might be countered with area effects, especially EMP.

We know how to give orders to human troops, but the best technique for giving orders to more or less (semi-)autonomous drone swarms may be very different. I like to think that my own idea/concept about zones with different level of ambition (regarding tolerance of hostile presence) and different allocation of resources would work well.

(6) There will be drone war prophet celebrities that will develop and incessantly repeat catchy buzzwords and simplifying models. Some of them will be Americans, earn some good money with books and lack substance at closer inspection.

*: Firearms kind of achieved this, but it took many centuries and wasn't anything close to what some early firearms proponent of the 14th century AD might have envisioned.
**: Meaning general target drones, not those specialised on radio frequency emitters. Those already exist. 


  1. How wll these drones affect supply of spare parts and fuel?
    My guess is they might need less fuel than current solutions, but more spare parts. This would shift the importance of controlling the global hydrocarbon supply chain, accomplished by the US navy, towards electronics production concentrated in East Asia.

    1. I suppose the spare parts issue would be minimal, as such drones would be munitions; possibly re-used, but expected to be spent fairly quickly.
      The energy issue would be minimal as well, especially if the drones use PV modules to extend their mission anyway.

      The production of chips and tiny IIR sensors would be the key. The current smartphone camera producers are Sony (by far the biggest one, and high end) + another Japanese, 3 South Korean, 1 Taiwanese and 1 Chinese (biggest low end supplier). The overall actual production share by Chinese is likely above 50% because South Korean and Taiwanese suppliers likely produce a lot in Chinese factories.
      (I suppose smartphone camera expertise can be transferred to tiny IIR cameras, though you need different materials.)

      Overall, there are likely more than enough production capacities for the sensors and electronics of autonomous war drones in the West and China, while the Russians may be concerned.

    2. I don't argue that the drones are great fuel consumers, rather the opposite.
      I think the use of drones increases the efficiency of other implements consuming fuel. If fewer such units are required to move or move less, then drones lead to a fuel reduction. Take the air force as one of the greatest fuel consumers and give them drones as precise stand off munitions. A strike package now needs less aircrafts in support roles or lighter aircrafts that move at slower speed with longer endurance with less fuel per time of air control.
      And fewer such strikes are flown, because one way missiles or slower stealth drones often accomplish the mission instead.

    3. The military wartime fuel consumption would be a tiny fraction of the peacetime civilian fuel consumption anyway. The logistical demands on fuel and artillery munitions supply are a major headcache in conventional warfare (and fuel also in occupation wars), but the overall quantities are still quite small.

      Fuel wouldn't influence campaigns the way it did in WW2 any more unless one faction is very much shut off from production.

    4. During WWII shutting down the fuel supply of the Axis powers proved crucial to winning the conflict. I imagine a major conflict will have similar attacks on the fuel and power supply. I also think a major conflict will see an increase in fuel consuming equipment and personnel to operate it, above our current levels.
      In a minor conflict you are probably right that military consumption is negligible.

    5. See this
      now assume Germany mobilized in war and fielded three division equivalents, which stay in action all the time. That would be roughly 1,000 tons of diesel fuel per day, about a million tons per year.
      Current total German consumption of diesel fuel is about 28 million tons a year, plus about 15 Mt gasoline. We could literally operate our Army for a year using two weeks worth of our diesel consumption.
      The reliably and timely hauling of diesel to the field is a logistic issue, but the strategic supply is not. Civilian consumers might feel a crunch, but military consumption would contribute almost nothing to that crunch.

      This is all about cold figures. They're fundamentally different from WW2.

      Similarly, we could operate our air force to its annihilation by 1%/mission attrition using nothing but the kerosene already on our civilian airports.

  2. I'm banking on the transition being more abrupt. I also dont think that your framing that transition to drones (all encompassing) is the same as aircraft/subs etc... Dont see autonomous drones as a technology in and of themselves, see it as an advance beyond the need and capabilities of humans/in-the-loop-operators.

    I dont have much faith in the turkish tier of computer security. Lots of imported sub assemblies and 100% non indigenous componentry. So the initial rush to adoption by second/third line powers may be revealed to be result of ignorance/arrogance/stupidity on the part of their leaders, but the cyber armageddon has long been prophesied and may be y2k level rubbish.

    I would say that a corectly designed, purely closed loop swarm of suicide drones costing maybe 100M (price of 1 F35) would be currently the most dangerous, revolution causing force on the planet.

    Waiting for cyber armageddon, waiting for killer drone swarms, waiting for the post covid global economic collapse, waiting for climate collapse, waiting for the 2049 plan. We're in the middle times of history.

  3. I think mass deployment and production will be the key. Slap a solar panel and cheap electric motor on a wing-shaped balloon filled with your lifting gas of choice, controlled by a hacked smartphone with an incindiary payload and you've got a dirt cheap mass of long-range loitering munitions, ready to drop in on a drought-stricken homeland near you.

    How many hours of F-22 flight time would it take to destroy 10 million of these things drifting slowly over the Pacifc?