Nobody wants them when the war is over

Monday, November 13th, 2023

David Hambling opens Swarm Troopers with a history of drones — which is not a history of steady progress:

History shows that drones tend to be ruthlessly terminated by a military establishment that harbors a ferocious antipathy to anything that dares to compete with manned aircraft.


The cavalry officers who could not see the advantages of switching to motor vehicles at the start of the twentieth century were making a rational assessment based on the available evidence. Horses had centuries of successful service, while their motorized replacements had always been clumsy and unreliable, especially on rough going.


Even when they have proven successful, nobody wants them when the war is over: “The great broom of victory swept all new projects into the ashcan of forgotten dreams,” as Commander Delmar Farhney put it.


Drone prehistory goes back to 1849 and the use of bomb-dropping balloons in the siege of Venice. These were devised by the ingenious Lieutenant Uchatius of the Austrian army. It was not possible to bring siege artillery close enough to the city. Uchatius, better known to history as a photographic pioneer, rigged up hot-air balloons to release small bombs by remote control via a copper wire. About twenty of the balloons were launched. Austrian news reports suggested the bombs would turn Venice into rubble, but it seems that only one or two hit the city. The rest fell into the waters of the Venetian Lido or outside the city entirely.


In some ways the true inventor of unmanned warfare was Nikola Tesla, who demonstrated a miniature boat controlled by radio waves at Madison Square Garden in 1898. Tesla believed that a version armed with torpedoes could sink battleships and lead to a new age in which wars were fought between machines with no human combatants. As with many of his projects, Tesla never developed the idea beyond the initial demonstration.

Both Britain and the US developed their own drone aircraft in WWI. The British effort was headed by “Professor” Archibald Low — he used the title even though he was not actually a university professor. Low had a tremendous enthusiasm for remote control and was repeatedly distracted from one project by another. His project was known as “AT,” short for Aerial Target, a designation to mislead the enemy into thinking the device was simply a target for anti-aircraft practice. This name proved to be strangely prophetic.

The AT was a wooden biplane with a fourteen-foot wingspan and an explosive warhead, intended for use against both ground targets and zeppelins. It flew well initially, but the program was terminated after an unfortunate incident in 1917 when it was being demonstrated to a group of generals.


The first AT to be launched in the demonstration suffered engine failure during take-off and flopped into the ground. A Major Bell delivered the verdict quoted at the head of this chapter: “I could throw my bloody umbrella further than that!”

The second machine fared even worse. The operator lost control and the AT flew right at the audience, scattering them before veering off and crashing a few feet away. As a demonstration of controlled flight, it was unconvincing. Nobody present can have thought that it was advisable to put high explosives on drones.


By 1918, Sperry’s Aerial Torpedo was able to fly along a preset route and dive on a target, delivering a thousand-pound bomb or releasing a torpedo. The weapon was too late to be used in action, and after the war, the US Navy thought drones were useful only for gunnery practice.


Even when relegated to the ignominious role of targets, drones developed a knack for embarrassing humans. In the 1930s, the British Air Ministry decided to test the claim that battleships were vulnerable to air attack by flying a radio-controlled Fairey Queen target plane against the British Mediterranean fleet. After more than two hours of sustained anti-aircraft fire and numerous passes, the drone was undamaged.

The Royal Navy accepted that its air defenses needed upgrading. Large numbers of drones were built as a result — but only as targets. Nobody thought the test showed that an unmanned aircraft might be an effective weapon.


  1. Jim says:

    Lightly modified quasi-consumer drones are now unambiguously the premier platform of highly targeted killing. Good luck putting that genie back in the bottle, blind war industry procurement officer prejudices notwithstanding.

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