Tomorrow Wars

Tomorrow Wars Vol 1 Issue 2: Back to the Past of the Future


40°39'25.6"N 73°59'13.3"W

On March 6, 1918, a simple biplane flew 1,000 yards without a pilot. It was the longest recorded flight for the Sperry-Curtiss Flying Bomb. The pilotless Kettering Bug demonstrated greater range, with at least one test flight landing 25 miles from its launch site. These prototype weapons can rightfully be seen as the predecessors of cruise missiles and modern uncrewed aerial vehicles, or drones.

Designed as a way to strike targets in the stalled and muddy battlegrounds of the late Western Front, neither the Kettering Bug nor the Flying Bomb ever saw combat, with the Nov. 11 armistice ending fighting before the spiritual grandfathers of the Tomahawk and the Reaper could ever be used in anger. That there were two concurrent pilotless weapon programs speaks to the persistence of service rivalries, the Army-built Bug a counterpart to the Navy’s Flying Bomb. That both programs shared a designer in Elmore Sperry speaks to the newness of the field.

While 21st century warfare is rich in drones, primordial aircraft like the Kettering Bug are good reminders that the history of drones runs through 20th century warfare, adapting the technology of the age to meet the same fundamental challenge: can we make explosions happen where we want, without having people nearby?

I'm Kelsey D. Atherton reporting from Gardner, MA, and welcome to the second installment of Tomorrow Wars.

This week, I’m looking at a future of war can be traced back through to the Kettering Bug’s first flights. The controls, terrain, and naming conventions may have changed, but there’s a deep continuity here, too.

Designated an aerial torpedo, the Kettering Bug’s goal was more fully realized in the body of cruise missiles than it was in drones. At least until recently. The simple autonomous programming of the Bug mostly pointed it in one direction and tracked time until it was close to estimated distance of the target.

Between the development paths of reusable drone and single-mission cruise missile sits the broad and expanding category of “loitering munition,” perhaps the craft that most closely lives up to the legacy of the Bug. Loitering munitions, known variously as “suicide drones,” “kamikaze drones,” or even “attritable aerial assets,” vary in form but not in function. They are flying machines with sensors paired to explosives, an ISR platform that converts to its own lethal payload when the right criteria are met or the correct order given.

Loitering munitions, be they briefly-loitering or long-flying machines, sit on the edge of debates about autonomous target, target identification, and human-in-the-loop controls. They will occupy an increasingly large slice of the future of drone tasks, especially when the explosive payloads are optional and a kinetic ending is optional.

“The time has come, in the opinion of the writer, when this fundamental question should be pressed with all possible vigor, with a view to taking to Europe something new in war rather than contenting ourselves as in the past with following the innovations that have been offered from time to time since the beginning of the war by the enemy,” wrote Major General George O . Squier, after watching a demonstration of a Sperry-built pilotless plane in 1917. “Wars are won largely by new instrumentalities, and this Board should be a leader and not follower in the development of aircraft for war.”

Let’s not loiter in reflection any longer. Onto the news!


Perhaps the blurriest line between drone and loitering munition in recent memory comes from the Drone 40 series, built by Australia’s DefendTex firm. Designed to be launched into the air from a 40mm grenade launch tube, the Drone 40 is a tube-shaped quadcopter whose role is ultimately determined by payload. With an ISR load locked in, the Drone 40 is a short-range scout, providing information in real time to the operator about what it sees from above. With an explosive payload loaded instead, the Drone 40 becomes a recoverable loitering munition, flown over where the user wants an explosion and then armed and detonated if desired, or disarmed and recovered if the threat changed. It’s fascinating because of the modularity of the mission set, and the notion that drones may in the future be munitions as much as they are scouts.


At the Army 2019 exposition last month, Russian defense companies showed off their latest wares to an international and domestic audience. The scene-stealing star of the show, which I will write about every opportunity I get, is an iteration on an owl-shaped drone that moves straight from goofy styrofoam cartoon character into uncanny valley plastic monstrosity. More relevant than just one weird drone, though, was the overall thrust of the show, built to demonstrate two major features of the Russian robot scene. The first is that these are battle-tested designs, which have been iterated around the successes and failures experienced in support of Russia’s war efforts in Syria and elsewhere. The second big feature is the emphasis on domestic production of key drone technologies. As the United States looks to secure a domestic supply chain for military drone components, Russia is eager to do the same, demonstrating knowledge learned from incorporating off-the-shelf parts but promising supply chains that are resilient against sanctions. This includes the Lancet and KUB loitering munitions, but it also includes its own fleet of quadcopters and swarming AI.


Multicopter drones lend themselves to workhorse roles, swapping in whatever payload a mission requires and doing a good-enough job. Novel payloads stand out because they can promise new missions, like this VTOL counter-drone drone built around a Russian rifle, but they can also showcase ancient capabilities in a new light. Caltrops, multi-pronged spiky impediments, date back thousands of years. They’re an ancient form of aerial denial, harming - or at a minimum, impeding - any foot traffic over the area in which they’ve been dropped. Releasing caltrops from a drone feels almost too elementary to be an innovation. And yet. The reach of drone, the maneuverability and possibility to fly in buildings or places otherwise difficult for people to go, makes it a threat worth watching and a danger that’d be foolish to discount. It also, given the dual-use nature of drones and caltrops, could see use on battlefields or by internal security forces against domestic targets. Spotted at a technology exposition in China, a drone releasing caltrops is a worthy reminder that, given a light enough payload or a powerful enough drone, any weapon can gain new range and reach, transforming the places in which it can be found. To underscore that point, the same security exposition showed a multicopter with a submachine gun. Drone, it turns out, find a way.

That’s all for this fortnight. Questions, comments, or inquires about the lifting power of a European Swallow as compared to a modern quadcopter, email me at

Want this newsletter in your inbox as soon as it's sent out? Subscribe here.

Recommended for you
Around The Web