Austin Bay: Robot War: Drone vs. Drone Over Ukraine
The Russian-Ukrainian war saw a remarkable first battle: Russian and Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) clashed in the skies.
The reports I’ve read include variations of the phrase “drone vs. drone dogfights.” Drone is the slang for drones, whether remotely piloted (like the famous Predator), or autonomous (a “robot” guided by its on-board computer), or semi-autonomous (variations in human interfaces become more complicated) .
“Dogfight” echoes World War I over France, with Britain’s Sopwith Camels battling the Red Baron’s flying circus, and the implied simile is apt.
World War I, however, was not the first air war. The obscure Turkish-Italian war of 1911-1912 has this distinction. Fought in Libya, Italian pilots aboard monoplanes and airships drop grenades on the Arab auxiliaries of the Turks.
Fact: Airship attacks foreshadowed World War I German zeppelin attacks on London.
Sobering fact: The totally unprovoked Italian invasion of the Libyan backwater of Ottoman Turkey was the first of a series of three wars involving the Ottomans. The two other bloodsheds are better known: the first and the second Balkan wars. Sarajevo, Bosnia is in the Balkans. One, two, three – the little wars led to the Great War, the First World War.
Military historical fact: The Turkish-Italian War offered bloody glimpses of World War I. The Italian invasion got bogged down in trenches outside Tripoli and Tobruk. A war of attrition ensues, with artillery and machine guns.
Contemporary speculation: Yes, Ukraine could sow a much larger war in Europe and Central Asia. Vladimir Putin says it every other day.
The First World War witnessed the first recorded air-to-air combat, as opposing pilots fired at each other with pistols or attempted to damage enemy observation aircraft by executing a very careful collision that failed to send the attacking in flames.
Aerial ramming usually leads to mutual immolation. So the planes quickly mounted light machine guns.
Which brings us back to the 2022 drone dogfights over Ukraine.
The first alleged engagement took place on October 13, the second on October 18.
As far as I know from the two video clips circulating via Twitter, the score for the drone dogfight is Ukraine 2, Russia 1. During the engagement on October 18, the Ukrainian drone rammed the Russian drone, and both fell off heaven – a mutual immolation.
I saw the 16 second video on October 13 via a Twitter post by Serhiy Prytula. His Twitter profile describes him as “Ukrainian politician, army volunteer”. From his Tweet: “WW1 style duel. The Ukrainian Mavic drone, which we delivered to one of the airborne units of the Donetsk region, destroys the Russian adversary. Surprising! …”
The Mavic is a quad-rotor copter drone used for surveillance. His Russian opponent was a quadcopter. The Ukrainian drone crashed and the Russian fell from the sky. The video indicates that the Ukrainian drone survived.
Jane’s Defense Weekly wrote that the video showed for the first time “an engagement entirely between unmanned systems has been recorded not only in this conflict, but in the history of warfare.”
Quite an accolade – and deserved if the video is accurate.
On October 18, Forbes drew attention to a second video where a “Ukrainian drone rams into a Russian adversary from above…sacrificing itself in the process.” The Forbes article adds, “Better air-to-air weaponry is surely in the works.”
In fact, for years better weaponry has been in the works. In 2007, I received a briefing from a senior Air Force officer on “attack networks” of armed drones, jamming drones, and manned aircraft.
Yes, humans in the loop, but drones attacking enemy drones too. Forbes mentioned that the Navy has been exploring combat “between competing drone swarms for years.” The military is exploring “land systems” where artificial intelligence assets and robots are fundamental combat components.
Drone-robot warfare is not without bloodshed – unmanned ones can kill humans. “Artificial intelligence” can make very unintelligent mistakes – a point the Air Force officer made when he advocated that humans have the ability to override it.
A warning to fanatics who think the future is robotic: high-intensity cybernetic and electronic interference, of the caliber that many analysts believe China is capable of generating, can fry computer brains.
But it seems that drone versus drone is now a historical fact.
(For readers interested in learning more about the Turkish-Italian War, chapter five of my 2011 biography of Kemal Ataturk, “Ataturk: Lessons in Leadership from the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire” is a starting point.)
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.