Drones are having their moment in the sun. In just three months, we watched them go from hobbies or toys to game-changing weapons, when the use of drones altered the face of the Russian-Ukrainian War.
The larger Russian military was held in check by more nimble, tech-friendly Ukrainians. Meanwhile the smaller Ukrainian army didn’t just deploy sophisticated Turkish drones to fight Russian tanks. It used them to scout enemy positions and even modified store-bought drones into deadly weapons.
This is a high-tech war with soldiers using sophisticated means to destroy enemy tanks and vehicles. It is disturbingly like watching a videogame. The dangerous Turkish Bayraktar drones even have their own soundtrack. Lithuanians just used crowd-funding to collect 5 million Euros to buy another Bayraktar drone for Ukraine. The manufacturer gave the drone to them instead, on the condition that the money be used for humanitarian reasons.
None of this should be surprising. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and new technologies usually wind up being used by the military sooner not later. Balloons went from curiosity to battlefield observation in the Civil War. Early biplanes became major factors in WWI. Jets arrived at the end of WWII. It was only a matter of time before drones made their mark on the battlefield, as well.
In the Air and Under Water
I have had drones on the brain since 2010, when I was given an incredible opportunity to tour the USS George H.W. Bush, the final Nimitz-class supercarrier. This was my first time on the ocean, aboard the most powerful ship mankind had ever created. Imagine a craft the size of a small town, with 5,000 people all working to a common purpose.
They flew us in to land on the ship while it was at sea. We were jammed in with admirals in a small plane also used for cargo. It wasn’t elegant—it was a functional, bumpy ride. We spent the night touring all around the ship, but what impressed me most was the people. The average age was 19, which meant a crew fresh out of high school with a few experienced hands to teach them.
It left a lasting impact on me. I became fascinated with military air operations, reading more and more on the subject. It didn’t take long for me to become that convinced drones would replace manned aircraft, considering the difference in cost and potential loss of life. As I tracked public assessments and news articles about drones, I noticed our military was still planning a future of manned air combat. That seemed backward, reminiscent of Gen. Billy Mitchell’s unheeded warnings about the importance of air power. I became so convinced, I sent one of the admirals an assessment of the future of drones vs. manned air operations in response to something he wrote.
In 2016, I published Our Heroes Through Tomorrow, a collection of short stories that opened with a story on drone war. In “Unintended Consequences,” I delved into a possible future where new technology eliminated the threat of nuclear weapons. Decades of mutually assured destruction disappeared overnight and plunged the world into a new, more conventional war. China attacked both Taiwan and the United States, using drone swarms in the air and under water to massive success. The Navy couldn’t prevent an invasion after drones damaged or destroyed several carriers.
My story focused on a teen in Texas who joins the Army because he sees it as a way to defend his family. As with many teenagers, computers come naturally to Hector. A desperate military commander allows the boy to join because he needs another tech to operate an anti-drone missile battery. Hector is small, but smart. He comes up with a way to use the anti-drone batteries to defend against enemy land assault. Now I can’t see a Ukrainian soldier operating a drone without thinking of Hector. Like him, many of the Ukrainian drone fighters are young, techie types putting their gaming and hobby skills to use in a way they never imagined.
The World of Tomorrow
Drones have appeared in sci-fi movies from Ironman 2 to Star Trek: Insurrection, but in 2016 our real world capabilities were still limited. I reasoned a near-future military drone wouldn’t be too far ahead of what we could achieve then; it would simply be the militarized version. At that point, I had barely even heard of the term “drone swarms.” They just seemed a natural technological advance. One small drone doesn’t pack much of a punch, even now; drones aren’t B-52 bombers, yet. All aimed at the same target, however, they would become like ants or even piranha—able to attack a much-larger foe if they worked together.
Now, six years after my story, drone swarms are making big news. Just this year, the Army tested a 28-drone swarm—with four squadrons of seven on the attack. The U.S. Air Force demonstrated drone swarms as a viable defense mechanism for Taiwan in a face-off against China, the villain of my story.
The Chinese have been busy, as well. They just “developed a drone swarm that can fly effortlessly through an entire forest,” according to news reports. Both police and Secret Service are worried about criminal or terrorist use of drones. I fear we will hear more about that. Those who operate those weapons will probably be not much different in age from Hector.
Underwater drones as described in my story haven’t seen action yet, at least not officially, but several major nations are working on them. They, too, will change war in ways we can only guess. This is what the world of science fiction is supposed to accomplish—to look into the future. Authors envision what might be, and engineers and scientists bring it to life, from Jules Verne’s Nautilus to Dick Tracey’s video watch.
The science fiction we all read or watch today is the science of tomorrow. It’s not just the science, it’s the world of tomorrow. By reading into the possibilities, we have a chance to look ahead to what’s coming and prepare ourselves, as best we can.