Note: This scenario was written two years ago, and published by the Norwegian Air Force Academy in 2013. Inspired by the video below, recently released by the US Naval Research Office, I have decided to publish my scenario in this blog. The text is unaltered, save for a handfull of minor corrections.
«The LOw-Cost Unmanned aerial vehicle Swarming Technology (LOCUST) is a prototype tube-launched UAV. The LOCUST program will make possible the launch of multiple swarming UAVs to autonomously overwhelm an adversary»
What follows is a scenario of how a UAV attack might take place in the future. To clarify, a scenario is not a prediction but rather a description of one of many possible futures. A plausible story if you will, based on extrapolations of our current knowledge of science and technology, as well as demographic, political and economical trends that seem stable enough to have an influence on the year 2050.
In this scenario, I make several assumptions. Firstly, this is a future in which UAV technology and IT has co-evolved for decades, resulting in autonomous, semi-intelligent aircraft. Secondly, I assume that current population trends in Russia and Norway will continue for the foreseeable future, with grave consequences in the case of Russia. Thirdly, I assume that global warming is a fact which will change living conditions and influence international relations in the Arctic in 2050.
Deciding on the attack
It is the year 2050, and Siberia is the Wild East. The central government in Moscow, weakened by decades of falling population, corruption and separatism, has lost control over a huge expanse of its territory. What used to be the Siberian Federal District is now an independent region larger than the United States, with a population comparable to New York City.
Thanks to global warming Siberia is becoming more habitable and attractive to immigrants from East Asia, most notably China. They are drawn by the promise of virtual lawlessness and access to vast natural resources, and as a result a new form of government emerges in the region. From Novosibirsk to Vladivostok, Siberia is ruled by an alliance of Russian and Chinese criminal gangs and warlords – the Siberian Cartel.
Although not a nation state in our sense of the word, Siberia wants economic and diplomatic relations with the governments of neighbouring nations. Of special importance are the Northern Rim Countries or NORCs for short – nations that can claim sovereignty over Arctic waters. These include the US, Canada, Russia and Norway.
Siberia wants its share of the energy resources hiding beneath the remaining sea ice, but has so far had limited success in making the NORCs see its position. After having tried conventional avenues for several years, the leaders of the cartel conclude that a new strategy is necessary. In a series of secret meetings held in 2048, they decide to take action against the most vulnerable of the NORCs – Norway.
Norway in 2050 continues to be ranked among the world’s wealthiest, most stable societies, largely thanks to the fact that the oil age lasted for much longer than expected. It has a population of 7,5 million and a small but professional and well-equipped army and air force. Norway is a member of NATO, by now an aging but still functioning alliance.
The leaders of the Cartel know that they cannot defeat Norway in a conventional attack. But then, defeat is not their goal. What the Cartel is after is recognition as the de facto government of Siberia. It wants Norway’s support in gaining access to the oil and gas fields in the East Arctic Sea, as well as control over the eastern section of the North East passage, fast becoming a major shipping lane.
Norway still has close ties with Moscow, which discourages all communication with what it terms “criminal insurgents”. It is this fact that the Cartel wants to change. It wants to force Norway to accept the new reality in the North with a short, sharp and massive show of force.
The Black Cloud
The manner of attack is determined, as always, by demographics, geography and economics. Russia is an effective barrier to ground-based attacks from Siberia, and economics rule out a large-scale operation by sea. By a process of elimination the Cartel settles on an air strike.
In 2050 UAVs have evolved into a wide range of aircraft, from hypersonic strike craft to microdrones the size of an insect. However, what really separates modern drones from their distant ancestors in the early 21st century is their mental capacity. Larger drones are able to reason at a higher level than birds of prey, and often emulate bird behaviour when necessary.
This also includes inter-drone communication. In stark contrast to the early 21st century, when UAVs where heavyily dependent on a ground-based communications infrastructure, in 2050 most of the data exchange is between the various craft. The old vertical line of communication is now mainly horizontal.
This has given rise to one of the most feared sights of the age – the so-called “black cloud”, a flock consisting of thousands of drones reminiscent of the clouds of starlings that can still be observed in nature. The Black Cloud launched by the United States launched against Lagos, the capital of Nigeria during the West African conflict of 2047, is generally regarded as the text-book case.
On the morning of June 3rd 2047 more than ten thousand drones descended on Lagos. Within hours, all infrastructure was paralysed and the population was subjected to psychological warfare of unprecedented ferocity. This was accomplished with non-lethal weapons such as electromagnetic pulse beams, sound cannons, chemical irritants and – most notably – neuro-projectors.
The latter is the unintentional result of research done in the 2030s, when engineers were trying to develop the ultimate home entertainment system by stimulating the brain to generate sounds and images. But rather than seeing the latest action movie with eyes closed, most test subjects reacted to the projector with an overwhelming sense of fear.
This ruled it out as entertainment, but the research was quickly picked up by military contractors. In 2050 there are a range of weapons capable of influencing human emotions at a distance. They work best when the targets are at rest, and usually form the core of a class of weapons known as Sleep Deprivation Systems (SDS).
In Lagos in 2047, SDS drones carrying neuro-projectors effectively blanketed large parts of the city with fear. Combined with isolation, relentless noise, a horrible smell and no power for air conditioning, this made sleep impossible. After two days, the citizens of Lagos were exhausted. After five days, they were hallucinating and ready to do anything to get some peace and quiet.
So was the rebel government that was the real target of the Black Cloud, and it capitulated in short order. It this effect that the Siberian Cartel wants to create, for the very first time in an advanced economy.
Building the Cloud
To accomplish this, the Cartel needs thousands of drones. There are restrictions on on the sale of advanced military drones, but civilian craft are powerful enough to do the job with some modification. What the Cartel doesn’t know, it can outsource. What it can’t buy on the black market, it can build.
In 2050 robotic production lines and three dimensional printing technology has evolved to the point where anyone with the funds can erect a factory complex in a matter of weeks. Theses factories are modular, based on standard shipping containers. Depending on what you want to produce, you buy the modules you need and assemble them on site, LEGO style.
Space technology is used to gather and process raw materials for production. In the 2030s exploitation of the mineral resources of asteroids became commercially viable, and autonomous mining robots were developed to keep costs down. These systems turned out to be well suited for the harsh Siberian environment.
So although the Cartel started out with limited technical capacity, it is able able to assemble an industrial complex in the depth of the Siberian forest. Within half a year, the factories are churning out UAVs and weapons systems.
Preparing for the attack
For the next phases of the attack, surveillance and planning, the Cartel depends on a completely different technology. In 2050 what was once called Big Data has fully realized its potential. Decision Assistance Systems, software that can analyze complex data sets and advise humans, is now used in all walks of life.
This includes the preparation, planning and conduct of war. The Siberian Cartel does not have access to military grade software, and rely on a civilian system modified with the help of hackers with rogue state connections. With this, they can pinpoint targets using images from commercial satellites, and publicly available information such as government statistics and data from social media.
What remains when the software has done its work is to develop a plan of attack. The obvious target for a Black Cloud is Oslo. The capital city has not been subject to a military attack for more than a hundred years, and the distance to all global centers of unrest has created a sense of security which the Cartel wants to shatter.
But attacking Oslo instead of a closer target such as Kirkenes in the North East, does present the Cartel with logistical challenges. Large, commercial surveillance drones are able to stay aloft for weeks at a time and fly from their take off-points in Siberia, but the majority of smaller drones are short range and need refueling.
In the case of Lagos the Black Cloud launched by the United States was supported by two carrier groups in the Gulf of Guinea. The Cartel settles on a different approach, using modified civilian drone ships as stand-ins for military drone carriers. It determines that three ships are enough to carry the drones and the fuel necessary for the Black Cloud.
The Cartel is involved in commercial shipping in the North East passage. In early 2050, three large container ships carrying 5000 drones ranging in size from three meters in wing span to five centimeters, are being readied in a small harbor on the East Siberian Sea.
The ships also carry fuel enough for a week long campaign, launch and refueling systems, an autonomous command and control center as well as advanced communications equipment. Like so many commercial vessels at the time, the cargo ships are crewless.
This serves the dual purpose of making it easier to conceal the ships’ true origin – deniability is crucial to the Siberian strategy – and simplifying the Cloud’s attack algorithms. Every human-shaped object on the ground in Oslo will be regarded as a foe.
The Cartel strikes
Under normal circumstances, Norway’s Air Force is capable of defeating a Black Cloud. Consequently, the Cartel has to wait for a chance to strike while the armed forces are otherwise engaged – which they frequently are in this turbulent, conflicted age.
An opportunity presents itself in the fall of 2050, when civil war breaks out in Brazil and NATO is called upon for peace keeping operations. Norway pledges half of its aging F35s for air patrol duties. But when the situation in Brazil spirals out of control in October, NATO and Norway is pulled deeper into the conflict.
The government in Oslo decides to deploy the majority of the country’s drone force to Brazil, and the Cartel seizes the moment. Three ships set sail from Siberia, and reach Oslo on the morning of November 15th.
Hours later, a flotilla of stratospheric drones classified as research aircraft, unexpectedly deviate from their course along the Norwegian coast. When called by ground control, the drones reply with a message that implies a software glitch. This creates confusion on the ground, and the drones are allowed to cross Norwegian air space without being intercepted.
The drones reach Oslo in the late afternoon, at the peak of rush hour, and enter a circling pattern twenty-five kilometers above the city. Now, the three attack ships in Oslo harbour make their move. Shipping containers on deck fall apart and reveal stacks of drones that quickly unfold their wings and are hurled into the air on launch rails.
Within minutes, the skies above Oslo are buzzing with drones of all sizes. The public perception that this is some sort of advertising stunt is cut brutally short by the first volley of surgical strikes from the drones. All electrical power is shut down, and drones carrying EMP weapons disable electric cars at junctions across Oslo, creating city-wide gridlock.
Then, the EMP drones start taking out mobile communication towers and IT services. The often repeated claim that our increased dependency om IT makes us more vulnerable is now put to the test – and proven beyond a doubt. For the first time in a generation, the city goes dark, quiet and cold on this wintry November evening.
As this is happening, the Cloud broadcasts a message to receivers outside the radio-silenced city: “Do not attack us, or we will bombard Oslo.” Despite this, a squadron of F35s is dispatched from a joint Air Force base in western Sweden. But the planes are quickly pulled back when rocket fire from the Cloud reduces a bridge in central Oslo to rubble.
The government, which by now is as isolated and terrified as the population in general, orders a stand off while “further avenues of negotiation are explored”. There is only one problem: with whom do they negotiate?
Nobody claims responsibility for the attack. The drones bear no identifying marks. In fact, the first warning message is the only message ever received from the Black Cloud. While the attack is ongoing, Norwegian intelligence can only say with certainty that the stratospheric drones and base ships came from somewhere in the East.
This makes it difficult to predict the next move, and the city is taken completely by surprise when psychological warfare begins in full. Drones carrying neuro-projectors cruise above the city, leaving gloom behind them. In addition there are constant loud detonations, the air has a sickening smell, there is isolation and cold and darkness. Few people are able to sleep.
On the second day of the Cloud, the government strikes back. Special forces have walked into town during the night, and attack the base ships from the ground. But they are only able to take out one ship before being overwhelmed by a flock of pigeon-sized kamikaze drones.
In response, the Cloud fires warning shots at Parliament. After it has been evacuated, the building is leveled to the ground by rockets. From its new headquarters in the city of Hamar the government asks for a cease-fire, to which the Cloud responds with its standard message.
In reality, the government is left with two options. The first is to wait until the cloud runs out of fuel. This is deemed morally – and perhaps more importantly – politically unacceptable. The second is to take out all the drones in one strike. NATO offers to launch a counter-cloud, but the Prime minister deems the strategy to slow and risky, and agrees to a more radical approach suggested by the Americans.
Late in the night on the 18th of November 2050, a tactical nuclear weapon is launched from the US towards Oslo. Detonating high above the city, the weapon does no physical damage on the ground but instead delivers a powerful electromagnetic pulse. In the fraction of a second, the unprotected circuits of thousands of modified civilian drones are fried. Minutes later, the Black Cloud lies broken on the ground.
The same blast that neutralized the drones also destroyed the remaining electronic infrastructure in Oslo, effectively bombing the population back a century. Repairing and replacing all damaged equipment is astronomically expensive, and it takes a decade for economic activity in Oslo to return to the pre-Cloud level.
Although the Black Cloud is directly responsible for fewer than a hundred casualties, this is the most damaging attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War. Of course, the people of Oslo want to know who did this, why it was done and why – if the enemy was defeated – they still feel like they are on the losing side.
The Siberian Cartel went to great efforts to hide their tracks, and therefore the government is unable (or unwilling, some say) to provide a clear answer. This fuels rumours about a cover up. Many point to the warming of Norwegian – Siberian relations from the mid 2050s onwards, which culminates in Norway being among the first countries to support the Siberian Republic’s membership in the United Nations in 2060.
A historian of note suggests that the Norwegian government may have been inspired by the strategy chosen by the Americans after the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1963, the US withdrew its intermediate-range Jupiter missiles from Turkish soil, as the Soviet Union had demanded.
But President Kennedy agreed to this on the condition that it be kept a secret, to avoid the impression that the Soviets had benefitted from their actions. Only later was the real connection known. Likewise, the historian says, it is possible that Norway gave in to secret demands while maintaining a brave face.
The Prime minister disagrees strongly, and in an interview broadcast in 2061 she denies the accusations and states: “This is not the Cold War. We live in an age of openness, where back-room deals such as this are impossible to hide in the long run. Even if we wanted to, we just don’t work that way any more.”