When British forces first used the Maxim machine gun on the battlefield, in present-day Zimbabwe in 1893, it fundamentally changed the nature of warfare, says Mark Bowden in The Atlantic. By World War I, machine guns had “driven infantry underground”: armies fought from deep trench networks spanning “the entire European continent”. Something similar could happen with drones. Small, cheap, and difficult to shoot down, drones have already played a huge part in the Ukraine war. They have been used to attack Russian ships in the Black Sea, and to “debilitate” Ukraine’s water and electricity grid. But military strategists think this is just the start.
The full “nightmare” scenario is the development of so-called “drone swarms”: thousands of tiny, autonomous armed drones, “no bigger than a starling”, capable of “instantly coalescing into a swirling dark cloud, like a murmuration”. Not only could these swarms “absorb huge losses” – robots don’t “get discouraged and turn back” – they could also render practically any air defence redundant. “An aircraft carrier? A commercial airliner? The White House? The president? Sitting ducks.” Americans and others are working on countermeasures, from signal-jamming systems to autonomous lasers. But that could usher in a new era of “full-on” artificial intelligence warfare – the type of robot-on-robot fighting depicted in the Terminator movies. We’re still a long way from that, thankfully, as drone swarms are at a very early stage. But the war in Ukraine may have given us “a peek of the world to come”.