by Austin Bay
October 19, 2022
The Russia-Ukraine war has witnessed a noteworthy combat first: Russian and Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) dueling in the skies.
Reports I've read include variations of the phrase "drone versus drone dogfights." Drone is slang for UAVs, whether they are remotely piloted (like the famous Predator), or autonomous (a "robot" guided by its onboard computer), or semi-autonomous (the variations in human interfaces get complicated).
"Dogfight" echoes WWI over France, with British Sopwith Camels battling the Red Baron's Flying Circus, and the implicit comparison is apt.
WWI, however, wasn't the first air war. The obscure Turco-Italian War of 1911-1912 has that distinction. Fought in Libya, Italian pilots in monoplanes and dirigibles dropped grenades on the Turks' Arab auxiliaries.
Fact: The dirigible attacks foreshadowed Germany's WWI zeppelin attacks on London.
Sobering fact: the utterly unprovoked Italian invasion of Ottoman Turkey's Libyan backwater was the first in a chain of three wars involving the Ottomans. The other two bloodlettings are better known: the First and Second Balkan Wars. Sarajevo, Bosnia is in the Balkans. One, two, three -- the little wars led to The Great War, WWI.
Military historical fact: the Turco-Italian War offered bloody glimpses of WWI. The Italian invasion bogged in trenches outside Tripoli and Tobruk. Attrition warfare ensued, with artillery and machine guns.
A contemporary speculation: Yes, Ukraine could seed a much larger war in Europe and Central Asia. Vladimir Putin says so every other day.
WWI did witness the first recorded air-to-air combat, as opposing pilots fired pistols at one another or tried to damage an enemy observation plane by executing a very careful collision that didn't send the attacker down in flames.
Aerial ramming usually leads to mutual immolation. So, planes quickly mounted light machine guns.
Which takes us back to 2022's drone dogfights over Ukraine.
The first alleged engagement occurred Oct. 13, the second Oct. 18.
As best as I can ascertain from the two video clips circulating via Twitter, the drone dogfight score is Ukraine 2, Russia 1. In the Oct. 18 engagement, the Ukrainian drone rams the Russian drone, and both fall from the sky -- a mutual immolation.
I saw the 16-second Oct. 13 video via a Twitter post by Serhiy Prytula. His Twitter profile describes him as "Ukrainian politician, army volunteer." From his Tweet: "WW1-style duel. Ukrainian Mavic-drone, which we have delivered to one of the airborne units in Donetsk region, destroys Russian opponent. Amazing! ..."
The Mavic is a quad-rotor copter drone used for surveillance. Its Russian opponent was a quadcopter. The Ukrainian drone rammed, and the Russian fell from the sky. The video indicates the Ukraine drone survived.
Jane's Defense Weekly wrote the video showed the first time "an engagement entirely between unmanned systems has been recorded not just in that conflict, but in the history of warfare."
Quite an accolade -- and deserved if the video is accurate.
On Oct. 18 Forbes called attention to a second video where a "Ukrainian drone rams a Russian opponent from above... sacrificing itself in the process." The Forbes article adds: "Better air-to-air armament is surely in the works."
Actually, for years better armament has been in the works. In 2007 I received a briefing from a senior Air Force officer on "attack arrays" of armed drones, jammer drones and manned aircraft. Yes, humans in the loop, but so were drones attacking enemy drones. Forbes mentioned the Navy has been exploring combat "between competing drone swarms for years." The Army is exploring "land systems" where artificial intelligence assets and robots are fundamental combat components.
Drone-robot war isn't bloodless -- the unmanned can slay the manned. "Artificial intelligence" can make very unintelligent mistakes -- a point the Air Force officer made when he advocated humans having override ability.
A warning to fanatics who think the future is robotic: High-intensity cyber- and electronic interference, of the caliber many analysts think China is capable of generating, can fry computer brains.
But it appears drone versus drone is now historical fact.
(For readers interested in learning more about the Turco-Italian War, chapter five of my 2011 biography of Kemal Ataturk, "Ataturk: Lessons in Leadership from the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire" is a place to start.)