From our mastery of fire onwards, just about every technological innovation known to man has had the capacity to be used for both good and ill, and the drone is no exception. Exactly just how destructive it can be in the right (or should that be wrong?) hands was made startlingly clear this month in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. In a brutal demonstration of the effectiveness of the armed drone, the Azeri army deployed swarms of ‘slaughterbots’ to force Armenia into a humiliating ceasefire.
In a wider perspective, the vital role played by the armed drone in smoothing Azerbaijan’s path to victory and at a fraction of the cost of a manned airforce promises to be a military game changer that could speed up the demise of the conventional tank. Launched with a few taps of a keyboard, Azeri’s slaughterbots highlighted the vulnerabilities of even sophisticated weapons systems in the face of this relatively new kid on the block.
“We’re seeing changes on the battlefield as profound as anything in the past 150 years as data, artificial intelligence and connectivity become the new key components of warfare,” former chief of Britain’s Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons told The Sunday Times. “But we’re still in the foothills of what’s coming.”
Although the conflict in Naborno-Karabakh appears to be the first deployment of slaughterbots on such a scale, the use of armed drones has been proliferating rapidly over the past decade. According to recent research commissioned by Foreign Affairs, at least 18 countries obtained armed drones between 2011 and 2019, compared to only three (the US, the UK and Israel) up to that point. Their most recent success can only boost their popularity – and may well end up feeding into the ongoing US-China trade war.
This September, it was revealed that the US Air Force’s Specialist Operations Command, the service’s highly trained commando division, had bought 55 armed drones from Chin’s Da-Jiang Innovations which is by far and away the largest supplier of drone technology to the US government as well as to its country’s general public. With US Congress considering banning the US federal government from using foreign-made drones as part of its 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Defense (DoD) has approved the products of five US-based unmanned air vehicle (UAV) makers for government use – Altavian, Parrot, Skydio, Teal and Vantage Robotics.
The armed drone is going to make some people very rich.