Writing About War has Changed Again

Anyone following military conflicts will have noticed how unmanned vehicles have changed the face of war. In particular, the brutal Russia-Ukraine conflict has highlighted how much has changed. Most strikingly, unmanned drones have sunk a large part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet at a hugely disproportional cost.

Aerial drones are providing real-time battlefield surveillance, conducting precision bombing raids, and doing battle with each other. Ground-based drones are de-mining battlefields, delivering supplies, evacuating wounded, and conducting assaults.

The near-term evolution of this is an unmanned battlefield, where an arsenal of drones compete for territory and casualties are reduced to drone operators in theatre. The party with the bigger industrial capacity becomes the winner simply by exhausting their opponent.

In the next iteration communications improve, operators work from hardened bunkers and the winner is determined by their ability to locate and destroy these bunkers. The underdog places these in civilian areas and cries war crimes when the enemy attacks.

Then AI, already assisting with targeting, improves to the point where operators are no longer required. Armies of fully autonomous drones duke it out, again until one side or the other is drained of the resources required to keep fighting.

SF has certainly touched on a lot of this over the years, but now that it’s here, wars in space featuring X-wing fighters and heroic pilots now seem anachronistic at best. Would we really see battles with large ship-based laser weapons, or would engagements be more along the lines of releasing a cloud of drones, each adapted to a specialized function, distributed, and harder to target?

What does heroism look like when our hero isn’t going to be flying low over difficult terrain while battling inner conflict in hopes of dropping that one-of-a-kind bomb into the Very Small Target, thus winning the day? “Hero tweaks the algorithm that ensures successful delivery of special weapon” doesn’t sound like a compelling storyline, does it?

I don’t envision writing much in the way of epic space battles anytime soon, but autonomous or semi-autonomous devices are an inevitable part of any SF story with a future timeline that’s aiming for realism. Even my current work in progress will need more of this kind of thing, lest it sound dated before it’s finished.