Death From Above

REVIEW: 'Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future'

An Israeli stun-grenade drone in May / Getty Images
June 27, 2021

The future of war is here, and it has arrived in the form of remote-controlled vehicles the size of your bicycle.

From Hamas suicide drones patrolling the skies above Israel in May's Gaza crisis to Azerbaijani drones raining havoc upon Armenian tanks in the Caucasus, the unmanned flying machines are proving an ace in the hole for conventional armies and insurgents alike. It's only a matter of time before American troops encounter an array of these weapons on a regular basis in nearly every theater of combat.

Longtime defense journalist Seth Frantzman has a roadmap for how to respond to the coming moment in Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future. Through a combination of expert interviews, wartime reporting, and historical research, Frantzman offers a vigorous treatment of the past, present, and future of drone use.

Frantzman first walks the reader through the early conceptualization and later construction of drones. The idea for the first high-functioning drones originated in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the large-scale destruction of Israeli tanks led engineer Yair Dubester to think of ways to get better real-time intelligence on the enemy. Dubester soon got to work on designs for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The innovations were so effective that within a decade, then-president Ronald Reagan's Pentagon chief, Caspar Weinberger, took time on a trip to the Middle East to inspect the technology for American use.

And good use Americans did get. Reaping the rewards of the post-Soviet environment, the Department of Defense put the engines of American manufacturing to work, building drones of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities. By the mid-1990s, the United States touted a decisive advantage over other countries in the burgeoning field.

But by the mid-2010s, a revolution in production and the proliferation of technology to small states and terrorists who do not possess the ability to build drones themselves diminished the American advantage. The United States rarely exports drones to even its closest allies given the sensitivity of the technology. The few other countries pushing forward in the drone industry, such as China, abide by the same rules. As a result, says Frantzman, the coming decades will be characterized by a rapid arms buildup.

Combining elements of the space and arms races of the Cold War, the drone race will be a flurry of innovation and acquisition efforts. Different, however, is the wide array of competitors. Arms transfers from rogue regimes make drone technology accessible to jihadists such as ISIS and Boko Haram, while the shrinking cost of production will catapult China into the lead. While the technology comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes—from the aptly named high-flying "Global Hawk" to compact suicide drones—winning the drone wars will likely come down to finding a common platform versatile enough to carry an array of weapons and surveillance capabilities.

As Frantzman reveals, the use of drones has gone beyond its deployment in the war on terror. A September 2019 attack on a Saudi oil field by Iranian drones revealed the lethal effectiveness of a "drone swarm," in which hundreds of devices bomb a facility in unison and are difficult to strike down all t once. Future swarm attacks could be even more devastating with the inclusion of artificial intelligence technology, which better allows drones to communicate with each other. In their book 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, former NATO supreme allied commander James Stavridis and veteran Elliot Ackerman envision Chinese drones swarming U.S. ships in the South China Sea. That future may be closer than you think.

The emergence of new technology has repeatedly changed the nature of modern warfighting since the late 19th century. Each change has come with a person Frantzman calls a "prophet," a thinker who is able to reach into the future and apply the technology to complex military problems. The warship had Alfred Thayer Mahan. B.H. Liddell-Hart thought about the tank. Planners took cues from Billy Mitchell on airpower. And, soon enough, they might learn drone doctrine from Seth Frantzman.

Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future
By Seth J. Frantzman
Bombardier Books, 288 pp., $30