“Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future” by Seth J. Frantzman, New York and Nashville: Bombardier Books, 2021. 287 pages, $30 (hardcover).
“Drone Wars” offers a detail-rich look at the history, evolution and possible future of military drones through the eyes of a highly-credentialed authority. The writer, Seth J. Frantzman, is a correspondent with the Jerusalem Post with a notable history of field reporting on conflicts in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. It’s hard to imagine anyone better placed to understand what is happening in drone warfare, which so far has played out primarily in the Middle East.
Frantzman starts with a history of remote-controlled UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), as they are called. Although drones saw limited use in Vietnam, it wasn’t until Israel used modified U.S. models against Egypt in 1973 that they became essential battlefield tools for video surveillance and as decoys flushing out enemy air defenses.
It was about that time that Israel took the lead in designing drones, producing the Yair Dubester-designed Scout, a reconnaissance drone that the U.S. developed into the Pioneer and used to guide naval ordnance in the 1991 Gulf War and later in Bosnia and Kosovo.
From there, Frantzman traces war drones’ development in ever more specialized and sophisticated directions. Abraham Karem, another Israeli, came to America to help engineer the Predator, the first drone to be armed with missiles and the principal UAV used in Afghanistan until 2018. Karem also lent a guiding hand to work on the “hunter-killer” Reaper, the Predator’s replacement. It was a Reaper that carried out the killing last year of Quasem Soleimani, and Reapers punished ISIS-K (and reportedly a number of innocent bystanders) for its attacks on the evacuation of Afghanistan.
But armed drones are only one current in the flood of military UAVs that has developed over the past few years. Frantzman describes a dizzying array of newer drones not just from the U.S. and Israel but increasingly from Turkey, Iran, Russia and, most of all, China, which has arguably taken the lead in their development. Current war drones range from back-packable models for near-field reconnaissance to giant surveillance affairs capable of flying for 40 hours in the stratosphere and watching over an area the size of Illinois.
As the author makes clear, drones of all types are taking over formerly human combat roles, a trend that will only increase in the future. At one point, he envisions a battlefield “crowded ... with helicopter drones like the futuristic Bell V-247, swarms of mini-drones, kamikaze drones fired from tubes on ships, tactical catapult-launched drones ... and drones being flown by special ops soldiers on a hill nearby. All that would be watched by a stealthy flying wing and a combat air patrol of other drones armed with Hellfires (explosive missiles).”
Of course, drones don’t exist in a vacuum, and Frantzman gives an enlightening account of the software breakthroughs that allow them to coordinate and operate more autonomously. He also outlines UAV defenses like jamming devices, lasers and microwave anti-drone weapons, going on to discuss evolving offensive strategies like the “swarm” approach demonstrated when Iran sent a team of drones to wreck Saudi oil fields in 2019.
In addition to describing the UAVs themselves, the engineering advances that make them possible and how they are employed, Frantzman gives considerable attention to the ethical concerns they raise, for instance, collateral damage. Daniel Hale, an Air Force intelligence officer, recently leaked classified documents showing nearly 90% of people killed in drone strikes over a five-month period were not those targeted. And even when drones can single out the right people to kill, what is the legal status of those extra-judicial executions? Frantzman notes that the U.S. has hunted and killed terrorists in 80 countries, including 4,000 in Pakistan and more than 1,000 in Yemen and Somalia. What has happened in these cases to the constitutional right to a fair trial?
Another sort of ethical worry arises from drones’ growing autonomy. At present, combat drones identify targets and the best way to destroy them, but a human operator makes the final decision. As drones grow more capable, that human in the loop can be seen as an unnecessary complication. Will we someday loose killing machines to operate at will?
Although the author cannot answer such questions, he gives them a needed airing, along with his worries about a future in which whoever has the best drones and is willing to use them without remorse will dominate the world. Judging by the way the U.S. and Israel have been overtaken by China in drone development and possibly artificial intelligence as well, Frantzman believes that power won’t necessarily be America.
Unfortunately, despite this wealth of information, or perhaps because of it, “Drone Wars” is not an easy read. Frantzman’s jittery focus can shift in one paragraph from 2020 to 1989 to 1918, and swarms of details – names, places, model designations, acronyms, campaigns – demand careful reading and frequent backtracks. Those acronyms are a problem in themselves. Not only are there several on most pages, but some go undefined, including knotty constructs like DARO, ACTD, EO/IR, or ABMS onramp #2. Moreover, this problem is compounded by a truly inexcusable omission. Despite its some 60 pages of notes, the book has no index. If you want to find each detail about our high altitude Global Hawk, for instance, you have to hunt through every page – or buy the Kindle version that allows searching.
– Reviewed by Joe Glaser, Western Kentucky University English Department.