Necro-Aeronautics: Raising Undead Aircraft for War
Recent news reports document Russia converting various An-2 passenger and cargo aircraft — old Soviet biplanes that first flew in 1947 — into drones, possibly as decoys to trigger air defenses. China has caught on too, converting 1950s Soviet jets into drones to serve as either decoys or for overwhelming an adversary. This is not new. Some of the earliest remotely piloted aircraft were actually converted piloted aircraft. During World War I, inventors Peter Hewitt and Elmer Sperry converted Curtiss N-9 seaplanes to allow autonomous or remote control. Decades later, the U.S. military continues to convert old aircraft into drones for target practice.
The United States should go a step farther: instead of using old aircraft for target practice, weaponize them and throw them at an adversary. The U.S. military should harvest American and allied aircraft graveyards (both military and civil) to generate cheap, unmanned mass. This will require careful inventories and inspections of aircraft in the graveyards to assess flightworthiness, the feasibility of conversion to remote or autonomous flight, and options for weaponizing. Adding long-range guns, bombs, or missiles might work for some undead aircraft, while others may only be suitable for kamikaze attacks. The broad range of aircraft involved also suggest the Air Force may require specialized pilots — call them necro-pilots, maybe — able to comfortably handle a variety of undead aircraft that may be missing parts or fly a bit janky. Now, conversion may entail some costs (especially if the aircraft needs modern avionics) and trade-offs in and effort with other activities, so at this point the United States should emphasize assessing aircraft and building capacity to convert aircraft, rather than actually converting aircraft.
Looking to Tucson
Drones are often relatively cheap and can be thrown at an adversary with little regard. Using many drones at the same time may overwhelm a target: Modeling from the Naval Postgraduate School in 2012 showed in an eight-drone attack on destroyers, typically four drones would get through the defenses. That ability to overwhelm targets also make drones quite valuable for high-risk missions. For example, drone mass is well-suited to suppression of enemy air defense missions — the loss of cheap drones is far less significant than the loss of an expensive manned aircraft and the death or capture of a pilot. Likewise, drones are well-suited to attacking command posts, convoys, or logistics lines where the strategic benefits may greatly outweigh the loss of large numbers of drones. Even simple roles like drones for artillery spotting require large numbers, because drone spotters will be relatively close to their targets and prone to being shot down. But that also creates a challenge in sustaining attacks over time because attrition rates will be high. The Russo-Ukrainian War illustrates the problem of mass well, with both sides having struggled with drone stocks. Ukraine and Russia have made significant efforts to increase supply, such as buying up stocks from Turkey and Iran, and both sides are crowdfunding civilian drones.
Aircraft graveyards provide a potentially great source to rebuild drone stocks through converting aircraft to unmanned systems. The world’s largest aircraft graveyard, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Tucson, Arizona, claims to typically control over 4,200 aircraft ranging from Soviet-designed MiGs to A-10 Thunderbolts. The low humidity of Arizona means rust build-up on the planes occurs more slowly. The aircraft are in various states of disrepair, with some aircraft designated to the scrapheap, while others are maintained and upgraded. The United States does not need to limit itself to its own graveyards but could also draw on allied stores, either for American use or to provide support for foreign militaries to convert for their own use.
Undead aircraft may not be ready to fly immediately. Graveyard aircraft are often stripped for spare parts, but a lot will depend on what parts those are. An undead aircraft does not need to support a living pilot and will require some technical changes to convert to remote piloting. Missing parts may be unnecessary. Fielding any missing parts that are necessary, however, may be a challenge since scrapped aircraft may not have been manufactured in decades. But if blueprints or schematics are available, 3D printing might solve the problem. The additive manufacturing process — layering material on top of other material — may create structural weaknesses that limit aircraft life, but that’s fine for an undead aircraft. The part may only need to last until the aircraft arrives at its target.
What would be difficult but worth exploring is adding drone swarm technology to the undead aircraft. This entails adding transmitters, receivers, algorithms, and programming to enable the undead aircraft to communicate and act autonomously based on that communication. Complex swarming behaviors like self-healing or dynamic target selection probably are not needed, but allowing the aircraft to autonomously fly in simple formations or coordinate search areas and target engagement could add considerable value. Greater autonomy also means less demand on the pilot, which is likely valuable given the near-certainty the pilot will have never flown an undead aircraft with any oddities that it may entail, nor likely the particular aircraft model.
Undead Aircraft in War
Undead aircraft could serve a variety of military functions. The most obvious is filling the aircraft with explosives, then carrying out a kamikaze strike. Aircraft confined to the boneyard are not doing anything, so cavalierly throwing them against an adversary only costs the time and technology to prepare the aircraft. The aircraft’s long range makes them well-suited to deep-strike attacks against softer targets, like rail bridges. Their low cost also means many undead aircraft can be thrown against a target. Depending on the target, smarter, more advanced munitions may be kept in reserve, saving stocks for when they are really needed. Alternatively, the aircraft may carry bombs, missiles, or other weapons that allow it to carry out multiple attacks against multiple targets. This could be quite effective as a first-wave attack in advance of manned aircraft: The undead aircraft and other decoys trigger radar and air defenses that can be countered with anti-radiation missiles. If undead aircraft make it through the air defenses, they might be able to crash into targets and cause some damage too.
Undead aircraft also could be quite useful as foreign military support. In most cases, an undead aircraft will be a big, dumb, but maneuverable munition — usable once then done. Ideally, undead aircraft would be as autonomous as possible to reduce training and operation requirements, and also have relatively standardized control systems so that pilots can readily move from one system to the other. In the long term, a true artificial intelligence pilot may be possible, removing the need for a pilot entirely. What would be especially interesting would be providing the capacity to convert downed adversary aircraft into undead aircraft. This would be technologically difficult and opportunities rare, but it’s plausible: Germany in World War II employed allied Beuteflugzeuge (“captured aircraft”) to carry out attacks and special missions.
Of course, undead aircraft may come with both real and opportunity costs that need to be considered. Graveyard aircraft may vary widely in their age, readiness for flight, and, consequently, costs for conversion. Older aircraft may not have the power generation and stability needed to operate modern avionics. Even if the airframe is fine, supporting, maintaining, transporting, and converting to remote operation all take time and cost money. Transporting the undead aircraft is likely the biggest opportunity cost, since they may be quite large. Replacing an F-35 on an aircraft carrier with an old McDonnell FH-1 Phantom does not make much sense. Perhaps undead aircraft could be stationed abroad. Or perhaps the military could plan to use allied military or civilian graveyards already in regions of interest. Likewise, the costs and benefits need to be compared against building and fielding traditional drones. Traditional drones could be cheaper but also carry much smaller payloads, and production supply might not meet demand in a large-scale war. Analyses of alternatives will also need to consider specific roles and alternatives: ADM-160 miniature air-launched decoys can also trigger air defenses and carry electronic warfare equipment, but an undead aircraft may carry big explosives and serve as a backfill if decoy supplies run short.
The long-term challenge is that if this approach proves successful, the United States may end up running out of old, useable aircraft. But presumably other aircraft will be phased out over time, which would increase stocks — perhaps a squadron of undead A-10 Warthogs? Some might see the value in pillaging military boneyards and suggest looking to civilian ones next for simple concepts like kamikaze attacks. A Boeing 747 converted into a gigantic missile could crash into a port or a bridge, or distract from other bomber formations. Aircraft owners would no doubt appreciate making money from otherwise worthless scrap. However, this might create risks in blending civil and military craft — if an adversary is taught a Boeing 747 is a threat, they may be more likely to shoot down civilian craft. Civilian boneyards might still be useful as sources for spare parts though.
Unmanned Means Mass
If unmanned systems are the future of war, then developing and sustaining mass is too. Unmanned systems have high attrition rates, so stocks can be depleted quickly. As the United States prepares for the possibility of massive great power war, the country should think creatively about how to source mass in an extended conflict. Undead aircraft raised for combat may be a useful supplement to expensive, smart munitions. Big dumb planes packed with explosives flown into a target might be just fine for some missions, leaving smart bombs for when they are needed. But successful necro-aeronautics will require an initial effort to inventory and assess aircraft graveyards for viable undead aircraft, and that process can begin now. These aircraft will then need to be repaired as needed, converted to autonomous or unmanned controls, and packed with explosives — with pilots or controllers needing to be trained to operate them. Given that undead aircraft will typically be more of a plan B than a plan A, the emphasis should be on preparing for conversion rather than immediate, mass resurrection. A squadron of undead aircraft is a useful adjunct to conventional air power, especially in protracted wars when more conventional munitions run dry. The U.S. military, in short, should raise its arms and bring forth a shambling mass of undead aircraft to overwhelm adversaries.
Many thanks to Emma Salisbury for coining the term “necro-aeronautics” and to Kelly Grieco for providing great thoughts on the draft. All errors and awkward turns of phrase are the author’s own.
Zachary Kallenborn is a policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, a research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), an officially proclaimed U.S. Army “Mad Scientist,” and national security consultant. He has published over 50 articles in a wide range of peer-reviewed, wonky, and popular outlets, including the Brookings Institution, Foreign Policy, Slate, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Parameters. Journalists have written about and shared that research in the New York Times, NPR, Forbes, the New Scientist, WIRED, and the BBC, among dozens of others in dozens of languages.