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RALEIGH – If we were to go back in time just five years, there was no such thing as widespread “drone attacks” or “drone warfare”. But that all started to change in 2019. First, there was a famous fictional scene in the 2019 movie “Angel Has Fallen”. In this scene, a swarm of small autonomous Kamikaze drones with computer vision are able to attack the President of the United States while on a fishing vacation. The Secret Service is unable to do anything to stop the attack. This scene introduced the general public to the near-term possibility of sophisticated drone attacks.


Then, on September 14, 2019, there was an impossible-to-believe real-life drone attack on an oil refinery in Buqayq, Saudi Arabia. In this case, 18 delta-wing unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and seven cruise missiles hit the refinery at 4 AM and they were able to destroy individual pieces of equipment in the refinery with extreme accuracy. The drones were launched from hundreds of miles away, and they were able to fly close to the ground to avoid radar detection. The cost of these vehicles is incredibly cheap compared to the cost of traditional manned fighter or bomber aircraft.

This video helps to explain the attack:


Now here we are in 2023, and drone warfare has blossomed into a fact of life on the battlefield. We see strikes and counterstrikes occurring constantly during the war in Ukraine. This week, Russia attacked Kyiv with a drone strike. Then Ukraine attacked several sites in Russia including Moscow and Pskov. The Ukrainian drone attacks shut down the Moscow airport of a period of time, and also damaged four large military aircraft that Russia relies on for supplying its front lines:

Drones have become such a fact of life that this week the United States announced a fleet of 2,000 drones:


From the first article:

“In her speech, Hicks talked of a perceived urgent need to change how wars are fought. She declared, in somewhat impenetrable Pentagon-speak, that the new Replicator program would: ‘field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18 to 24 months.’ Decoding this, ‘autonomous’ means a robot that can carry out complex military missions without human intervention. ‘Attritable’ means the robot is cheap enough that it can be placed at risk and lost if the mission is of high priority. Such a robot is not quite designed to be disposable, but it would be reasonably affordable so many can be bought and combat losses replaced. Finally, ‘multiple domains’ means robots on land, at sea, in the air and in space. In short, robots everywhere for all kinds of tasks.”


This video shows what some of these new drone aircraft look like. Pay particular attention to the XQ-58 Valkyrie at #8:

What we are seeing here are several different trends combining together:

  1. The first trend is the desire to remove human operators from aircraft. When an aircraft has a human pilot, there are a number of constrains the human creates, including the size of the pilot and cockpit, the life support systems for the pilot, and the limits on human pilots in terms of things like G forces and sleep requirements. If the aircraft is shot down, a human pilot can also be captured and used for information or as a bargaining chip.
  2. The second trend is the desire to launch drones in swarms. Since it is so much less expensive to build drones (compared to manned vehicles), it is possible to build lots more of them. When launched as a swarm, it can become nearly impossible for an opposing force to stop the attack.
  3. The third trend is the desire to get AI onto the battlefield. With AI capabilities advancing so much in recent years, it becomes the case that AI is better than humans in certain battlefield situations.
  4. The fourth trend is to create loitering assets. A landmine is a simple example of this. Once buried, a landmine can sit and wait for years for someone to step on it before it explodes. The aerial version of this is an AI aircraft that can fly to high altitude and hang out for 24 or 48 hours waiting for specific conditions to prompt an attack.
  5. The fifth trend involves climate conditions. Humans do not perform very well in high heat or deep cold. Drones can operate in any environment or weather conditions.
  6. And then of course there is the consistent and strong effort over time to lower human casualties on the battlefield as much as possible.

This is the moment in history where all these trends unite, and we are about to see an explosion in drones and other autonomous systems.

Sea Drones

And it is not just aerial drones that are proliferating. There are also underwater drones that are making waves:

We are about to witness a complete transition on the battlefield, where human soldiers and pilots start becoming a thing of the past. They all get replaced by these many and varied drone systems. Humans will still be in the loop, and still in command, but they are likely to disappear from the actual battlefield at some point.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40JFxhhJEYk – Angel Has Fallen: A swarm of armed drones attack the President
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_Has_Fallen
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnDM60VPqVM – Saudi Aramco reveals attack damage at oil production plants
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sz58GyPoY3o – Saudi Arabia: major fire at world’s largest oil refinery after drone attack
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95dHRLzrErI – Who launched the drone attack against Saudi oil facilities?
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JB57sf112So – Russia’s kamikaze drones rain down on Ukraine – BBC News
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5mGo_KRk3s – Ukraine War: Why is Ukraine’s ‘biggest drone attack’ in Russia significant?
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4np2YFojcs – 10 Most Advanced Military Drones in the World