For all the amazement that swarms of consumer-grade drones provoke—flying in choreographed clusters to form logos, pictures, and even QR codes in the sky—they’re also a subject of some strategic concern among national security experts. Drone swarms, one analyst says, are the new WMD (weapon of mass destruction); “slaughterbots” are the new nightmare technology, says another; one prominent media account describes “sinister” flocks of “really creepy” drones buzzing residents in rural areas and raising fears of mass surveillance, or worse.
Of course, drones by themselves are not new. However, what is new is that rogue states, terrorist groups, and other malevolent actors around the world are seeking weapons that can do less damage but can still rival a WMD in effect. During the Cold War, strategic analysts surmised that states would want WMDs for widespread destruction. Yet in the last three decades, several states have used chemical agents—canonical WMDs—in peacetime for assassination of individuals.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is thought to have assassinated his half brother with VX nerve agent in 2017. A year later, Russia was suspected to have used a Novichok chemical agent in Salisbury, England, in a failed assassination attempt of a former Russian spy and his daughter. The U.S. intelligence community has recently linked the Russian government to the attempted assassination of Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny in 2020 with a Novichok agent.