The drone zone—or, revolutions are real
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
The Ukrainians attacked Russia’s famous naval base at Sevastopol with drones and in the process produced some wonderful footage, as if from a video game, where the drones dodge Russian helicopters and depth charges—and even, at one point, send a Russian sailor jumping from his speedboat to avoid an apparent imminent collision with a drone. The attack has spawned endless articles that say, in a rather haughty tone, “Ukraine’s attack on Sevastopol might look like a revolution, here’s why it’s not”. These articles will then use images like the one posted above to “prove” that naval drones are nothing new—see, we even had them in the 1940s, with TV and all.
These articles are not idiotic, as most people would say, rather, technically, they are narcissistic. It is hard to say they are “wrong” because the articles depend on ambiguity around what people mean by “a revolution”—for my purposes, I will say a revolution in this sense is a change, either quantitative or qualitative, that leads to a situation, in this case on the battlefield, that is substantially different from previous global situations (in this case, wars). So defined, the way the Ukraine used the drones is a revolution in naval warfare.
To say otherwise, you have to work on this principle: man has thrown spears since the dawn of time, the Tomahawk cruise missile is just a giant spear; therefore, when cruise missiles were used in Desert Storm this was no different to when a cave man threw spears—it was just the spears went further this time. Given that every technology we have is really just a natural process made faster, so as to collapse distance, the point could be applied to any technology. Twitter, for instance, is just an augmentation to the human voice—it used to be that when I got up every morning, in my archaic Stone Age incarnation, I could only inflict my views as far as my stone-man howl would go, whereas thanks to Twitter I can get up every morning and inflict my opinions on millions of people. The principle is the same, it’s just my voice carries globally now. This is all true, yet it misses the point—if you think about it this way, there has never been a revolution in anything because, per Ecclesiastes, there is “nothing new under the sun”.
Hence you have journalists who say “fire ships have been used since at least the 16th century” and “we had RC drones in WWII”—no revolution. Eh. The point is that contemporary naval drones are relatively cheap, mass produced, operate autonomously, and can operate over vast distances. The drone in the above article was practically a one-off job that could only operate at short-range with a man to superintend it—and even then it probably lost its signal all the time. Nobody in 1940 was building swarms of kamikaze drones—for the air or the sea—because that was not economical nor even technically possible.
Today we have drones that could in principle be left on their own in the ocean for a year (or longer)—steering their own course—and then suddenly snap into action when required, perhaps in concert with other drones. So, yes—the principles might be very similar to a WWII RC boat, just as my iPad is very similar in principle to the Colossus computer; and yet, come on—you know that the Difference Engine, the Colossus, and the iPad are related; and yet they are different in such a way that an iPad would be “revolutionary” to Babbage.
Why do they do it? Because journalism is almost all based on counter-signalling events to “make news”. So something happens, an Islamist terrorist attack, and the media will produce articles to “make you think”—think-pieces—that say, “Why this terrorist attack committed by Abu al-Amar, preceded by a video where he said he acted in the name of Allah against the infidel Zionist-Crusaders and swore to give his life on the Koran, really has nothing to do with Islam”. Commonly people will say the journalists are being idiots, really they are being narcissists—they cannot just accept the reality, they have counter-signal; they have to find a way to be “special” or “unique”—if someone says “it’s a revolution” they say the opposite, and vice versa. So your first reaction to the Sevastopol attack, “Wow, this is a game-changer. The age of drone warfare has truly begun at sea, just as it has in the air,” remains entirely correct.
Similar nonsense occurred when Musk said that the Ukraine conflict is the first drone war—journalists and OSINT people (synonymous) popped up to say, “Actually, you forgot the Mimbari-Eschkelon conflict in the Caucasuses in 2018.” The Ukraine War is the first drone war—just as the Gulf War was the first cruise missile war, irrespective of individual previous uses—because it is the first time drones have been used en masse by two industrialised powers. Previous drone deployments were analogous to the way balloons were used in the US Civil War—whereas in this war you see all the possibilities being explored, strategies being worked out, and improvements being made (just as aircraft evolved rapidly from reconnaissance scouts to bombers as WWI progressed). The principles of air combat were fleshed out in WWI, finessed in the Spanish Civil War, and then fully deployed in WWII—to say the Italians used a biplane in a guerrilla campaign in North Africa in 1909 is interesting but mostly pedantry.
Hence in this conflict we have seen jerry-rigged domestic drones used to drop hand-grenades on people. These produce pretty nasty videos where some guy, usually Russian, is hidden in a foxhole and then we watch a hand-grenade from a drone sail down on him—launched by some hypodermic syringe adapted for radio control as a bomb-release/priming mechanism. It’s pretty dismal to watch, unless you like just sneaking up on people—and, surprisingly, they are not “splattered” by the grenade, sometimes they barely seem affected (it’s all internal injuries, you see). Anyway, this was an autonomous development in the war, all cobbled together—very “makerish”, as a hipster might say.
Indeed, people in the arms industries have watched these videos and they are already designing proper “anti-personnel drones” that take the same principle—innovated on the fly, in war, and therefore very potent—to produce a reliable mass-produced drone. Rather than a hand-grenade dropped from a toy drone, I foresee a miniaturised kamikaze drone packed with explosives that will automatically descend to an optimal height above a soldier in a foxhole and then explode—the height will be scientifically determined, as will the payload, so as not to kill but to injure him, it being much more useful from a military perspective to gum your enemy up with injured men they cannot abandon. The on-site innovation just tries to kill people with a grenade, the perfected scientific version will paralyse and disable—the more rational strategy.
In this way, war itself is a revolution—nobody thought to produce a drone that dropped a hand-grenade, yet war invented this drone type spontaneously. Now it just has to be finessed and mass produced for the next conflict. All this was foreseen long ago: writing in the 1930s, JFC Fuller imagined a time where a general would sit in London, attached to various wires and a headset, and single-handedly control, per Command and Conquer, whole armies—hence he thought the mental aspect would become paramount in war, long before video games even existed he imagined such a soldier and the console-based training he might require. So nothing’s new under the sun, then? Well, Fuller was no fool—if you brought him through time to today he would acknowledge that his notion has almost come to pass (even now we are a little distant from single man wielding drone swarms with his neural-link alone) and he would undoubtedly recognise a revolution in military affairs.