I subscribe to an expansive definition of “drone.” The term, derived from radio-controlled uncrewed planes and aerial targets, has had a long and durable path from military curiosity to modern life. It covers everything that takes off and lands without people on board. That’s the distinguishing feature, the lack of humans physically in the vehicle.
We could have arrived at a point where the popular press and professional circles alike called modern drones, or at least all modern military drones, unmanned aerial vehicles. Any possibility of the world adopting UAV as a standard term was lost when, for various reasons, different groups decided to emphasize the broader tools around the vehicle with Unmanned Aerial System, say, or the active role of a human operator in Remotely Piloted Aircraft. The proliferation of terminology that means roughly the same thing, but with a slightly different emphasis, gets lost and everything from a hobbyist quadcopter to a Global Hawk gets grouped into the same big family.
I mention this now because we are approaching an inflection point where “drone,” for all its expansive power, is suddenly inadequate to explain a variety of machines in the wild.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and for this seventh installment of Tomorrow Wars, I want to talk about the semantics of loitering munitions.
As longtime Tomorrow Wars readers (Tomorrow Warfighters? Tomorrow Warthogs? Email me your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org) will remember, the second installment of this newsletter spent a lot of time on the Kettering Bug and its legacy as progenitor of drones, cruise missiles, and loitering munitions.
What brings this to the forefront today is the Sept.14 attack on a refinery and oil field in Saudi Arabia. While the weapons used will likely ultimately be revealed, what is fascinating about the attack is that the possibility really stretches across the full range of drone, loitering munition, and cruise missile. We know, by the success of the attacks, that whatever flying machine made them was able to maneuver around the limited radar arcs of the missile defense systems in place. Cruise missiles can be set to plot paths that way as can loitering munitions or drones navigating by waypoints. Unlike the arc trajectories of ballistic missiles, drones, loitering munitions, and cruise missiles all have rather flat trajectories, before either diving into the top of or making a side impact with the target.
It is working backward from an attack that the difference matters least, and it is in preparing against the next attack that it matters most. If the drones are remotely directed, then jammers and electronic warfare are viable answers. If the machines have internal navigation systems without external inputs, interception is really the only way to go. And if the kind of machine is sometimes a scout and sometimes dives into an attack, well, that’s a whole mess of a threat in a single package that likely has to be countered as though it is simultaneously a drone and a missile.
Until a semantic distinction arises, people looking to explain the distinction could do worse than a functional definition, provided by twitter user @gthau: “If it turns around and returns to your base and everyone is fine with that, then it's a drone. If a cruise missile does a [Return To Home], you'll know it by the screaming of the radio.”
° 1. ICED OUT
The last installment of Tomorrow Wars was about labor power, and the struggle the Pentagon is having selling its mission to Silicon Valley workers skeptical of designing weapons. There is a parallel, linked struggle happening with technology workers and internal security forces, and straddling that space in the tech community reaction to Palantir.
On Sept. 16, 1,200 students representing 17 campuses, including Yale, Stanford, the University of Utah, and 14 others, published a letter pledging they will not work at Palantir because of its deals with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, specifically in light of contracts facilitating ICE’s harsh crackdown on immigrants.
The publication of this letter followed an announcement that AnitaB.org, a nonprofit aimed at recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in technology, had removed Palantir as a cosponsor of its Grace Hopper Celebration because of Palantir’s work with ICE. Palantir published an open letter in response, framing its work with ICE as one of many “critical yet complex problems” that workers could tackle from inside the company instead. It is a response that, at best, misses the substance of the critique.
° 2. FOUR ROTOR FORERUNNERS
The Pentagon would like a quadcopter that is cheap, useful, made with parts sourced through the United States, and meets greater cybersecurity requirements than commercial-off-the-shelf technology. No such quadcopter exists, yet, though the new Trusted Capital Marketplace seems dead-set on kickstarting a military grade quadcopter into existence that is only a few times more expensive than commercial models. I took a deep dive in the Army’s quest for its next quadcopter, what the quadcopter market is already like, and how China’s DJI stumbled into military use, despite never being intended as a military tool.
° 3. TEAMWORK MAKES THE MACHINE WORK
Matching disparate skills to the same task is an essential feature of humans working in groups, and DARPA wants machines to develop that same kind of skill set. Context Reasoning for Autonomous Teaming, or “CREATE,” is a DARPA project to develop an artificial intelligence that can command drones, UGV (land drones), and possibly even UUVs (underwater drones) or USVs (surface drones) into a functioning team that can perform missions together.
° 4. LLAMA TAKE A LOAD OFF YOUR BACKRONYM
Here at the Tomorrow Wars studio, we love acronyms warped backwards to sound like special features on a G.I. Joe playset. Have a favorite backronym? This fortnight our backronym comes from the Army Research Laboratory, and it might be peak backronym: Legged Locomotion and Movement Adaptation, or LLAMA. The four-legged LLAMA robot could provide squad support over rough terrain, accompanying infantry on foot and taking a load off their backs. Maybe you know a secret WORD (Wide Open Road Disabler)? Email me at email@example.com and I might include it in a future issue.
That’s all for this fortnight. Questions, comments, or inquires about whether or not the Buzz Droids in “Revenge of the Sith” are loitering munitions, drones, or a type of cruise missile, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.