Historically, fighter pilots have been the rock stars of aerial combat—from American hero Eddie Rickenbacker in WWI to WWII's Luftwaffe aces with hundreds of victories to Tom Cruise's fictional Top Gun: Maverick air warrior.
But the next sequel to Cruise's navy-aviator flicks may be entitled Top Gun: Drone Ace, where Maverick sits in a dark room controlling a consumer tactical drone on a video screen. Cue the bombastic rock-music soundtrack...
While still somewhat of a novelty—and certainly not as movie-magic dramatic as a jet fighter careening through canyons while evading enemy fire—drone dogfights are becoming more common.
On October 13, 2022, during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Ukrainian broadcaster Serhiy Prytula posted a video of a drone-on-drone battle between DJI Mavic drones. The Russian Mavic was "shot down" by the Ukrainian Mavic when it rammed the enemy's rotors. This event has been called the first drone dogfight in history.
Watch the Dogfight
“I can’t say I am surprised, given how many drones are in the air at any given time and the absolute and immediate need to neutralize the adversary drone once it is identified,” related Samuel Bendett—a Russian defense expert and security advisor—to Forbes.com. “However, drone operators using consumer drones for military purposes are not yet taught air ramming techniques due to a shortage of training drones. It's not very effective.”
That may change. Quickly.
An entire class of drones designed to take down enemy drones already exists. Anduril debuted an AI-powered interceptor in 2019, and Ukraine developed a "drone fighter" known as "Fowler" late in 2022.
Consumer drone fighters can be inexpensive and relatively effective anti-drone measures—especially when compared to missiles that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per action. Not exactly cost conscious to shoot down an off-the-shelf (albeit modified) drone costing a few hundred dollars with a $480,000 Stinger missile.
Drone-on-drone combat has escalated since those first two Mavics squared off.
Will countries continue to invest in training and technology to take air battles away from the cool, steely resolve of fighter aces and jets, and instead place the dogfights into the hands of drone pilots?