Authors’ note: Useful Fiction is the deliberate blend of nonfiction with narrative communication techniques. Sometimes known as FICINT or “Fictional Intelligence,” the goal is not to replace the traditional white paper, article, or memo, but to achieve greater reach and impact of the research and analysis through sharing them through the oldest communication technology of all: Story. The narrative can also allow a reader to visualize new trends, technologies, or threats, in a manner that is more likely to lead to both understanding and action. As such, it has been increasingly used by organizations that range from the U.S. and NATO militaries to Fortune 500 companies.
The following is a Useful Fiction product designed to visualize how new unmanned technologies, and especially their proliferation to a wide array of state and non-state actors, could lead to both new threats and complicate our understanding of fast-moving crisis scenarios.
The intelligence analyst put her head in her hands, resting bare elbows hard on the desk, while her fingers massaged her temples. Her portfolio was the Middle East, which had been seemingly put on the back burner amidst the missiles flying across the Taiwan Straits. And then, in the span of a morning, everything had changed. Now, she needed to send a memo to her supervisor, who, in turn, would be sending that memo on to the Deputy Director for National Intelligence, who, in turn, had to do an emergency briefing for members of Congress.
A deep breath.
“OK, OK,” said the analyst, looking at her watch to confirm the time she had left. Donald Duck’s arms marked that she just had under 20 minutes to explain that perhaps a new front had or hadn’t just opened up in what was looking like a global conflagration.
The old school watch was both irreverent and necessary, given how all outside digital devices were prohibited inside the workspace. She took a fortifying swig of coffee from a navy blue mug, the logo of her college starting to fade from years’ worth of scrubs in the office kitchenette sink. It was lukewarm, but there was no time to freshen it up.
She began typing…
(TS//SI//REL FVEY) DETERMINING PROXY FORCE ATTRIBUTION OF DRONE SWARM ATTACKS ON HQ NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY-BAHRAIN
Run Date: 28 July 2025
(S//SI// REL) Based on current reporting, attacking elements targeting HQ NSA Bahrain have succeeded in breaching the facility’s security perimeter. At approximately 0050 ZULU 21 July, a flight of unmanned air systems began to assemble near the northern port area. Once the swarm reached approximately 100 UAS in number, it targeted the main gate and multiple points in the security fencing with persistent kinetic effects. The series of small explosions left major gaps, which were then exploited by multiple autonomous VBIEDs. They were engaged by the base security force and host nation law enforcement, but at least four of the vehicles were able to enter the facility. Following the model of the Denver and Edinburgh attacks, the driverless vehicles proceeded to target pedestrians and then smash into the entrances of the naval base’s buildings at high speed, including a fuel depot. Multiple explosions are confirmed at the facility.
On the monitor to the right of her main display, the analyst refreshed her feed, to see if any other reports had come in from agency partners. On the left, she had open a tracker of OSINT data. It displayed an aggregation of real-time social media feeds of video and still images trending in the region. It looked like a scrolling tapestry of shattered buildings. One feed had even already been able to provide a satellite image, showing there were five different pillars of smoke rising from the U.S. base. She edited back to change “multiple” to “at least five.”
(S//SI//REL FVEY) The attacking forces appear to have coordinated their attack with information operations to ensure maximum social media coverage. OSINT and SIGINT fusion reports indicate a subset of the drone swarm live-streamed their content to Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook. The host sites have already moved to block the imagery, but a network of accounts and bots are pushing them across the network creating a viral narrative in both Arabic and English.
She took a pause from furiously typing and wiggled her fingers to stretch them out. She then looked down to see how much time Donald had left for her.
Normally she’d walk over to her colleagues just a few desks away, to pulse their ideas, as the give-and-take of a conversation would often surface something you wouldn’t think of on your own. But everybody was too busy to talk things through.
The analyst reconsidered what she really had to write here. What was the most important thing the leaders needed to know? She tried to put herself in their shoes.
They probably had access to all the same information that she was seeing online. What they cared about was “Who did this?” Unfortunately, it was not that clear. For all that it seemed like sci-fi still to the senior leaders, both the technology and the TTPs were just so common now.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) Attribution and Origination
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) Attribution for the attacks remains unclear, in part due to the different national origins of the software and hardware used.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) Based on flight control pattern and drone-to-drone guidance communications analysis by CRIMSON GLAZE, it is believed the UAS swarm is using a flight-control algorithm developed by a team at Skolkovo, the Russian AI incubator.
She scanned the SIGINT feeds further to see if anything out of the regional mobile communications traffic from currently targeted Russian and Chinese systems had any tells or giveaways. Something this audacious meant somebody was gloating somewhere. That was all too human, and the SIGINT might show who.
Nothing, however. Another way to think about it she realized, was who isn’t talking right now? But everyone knew now that going silent was just as much as a tell as waving an “I did it” flag outside your cave or headquarters building.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) Use of this technology does not, however, determine attribution to any one threat actor. Past intelligence reports…
She made a note to attach a link to the prior report.
…indicate the flight-control algorithm developed at Skolkovo are widely available on the civilian market.
She stood out of her desk chair, both to stretch her back and try to get a new perspective. Down the hallway, what was playing on the TV mounted in the corner caught her eye. Permanently set to cable news, it showed a split screen of simultaneous convoys of SUVs darting away from the Capitol, while underneath text explained that the House and Senate leadership were at this moment racing in convoys of armored SUVs toward an undisclosed location, in light of the recent attack. That didn’t help her stress. All it meant is that she could see the audience of her yet uncompleted memo racing to wherever they would read it.
She sat back down.
12 minutes. Keep writing.
Just as she started to type, there was a pop-up notice of fresh information coming in via a U.S. Naval Intelligence analyst, who had the Iran portfolio. She read it as rapidly as she could. The time was worth it; this was exactly what she needed.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) OSINT imagery shows that at least part of the UAS swarm featured small drone designs of Iranian origin. Current users of the technology include a mix of state actors, including Iran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Quds Force, the Iranian military) and multiple arms sales recipients: Ethiopia, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Venezuela. Iran has also provided the system to multiple non-state actors, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi (Ansar Allah), multiple groups in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al Haq, the Badr organization, and Kataib Sayyad al Shuhada. Each of the state recipients have also provided systems to their own non-state proxies; for example, the Wagner Group has also utilized the system in its operations in both Ukraine and Mali.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) Local extremist groups in Bahrain, such as Saraya al Ashtar, have not previously operated the system; however, they have trained with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and received other types of weapons through smuggling networks.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) A complicating factor is that the small size of the systems has led to proliferation beyond these groups. Other users include even Sunni groups that Iran opposes, likely through theft and resale by individual members to illicit arms markets.
Now for the other part of the attack. This made the attribution even more difficult.
(TS//SI// REL FVEY) OSINT imagery shows the VBIED systems to be of civilian design; notable to the ongoing conflict in the Pacific, they are manufactured in China, with a software support architecture linking back to a state-linked enterprise. However, they are a common make available for sale in multiple countries.
She checked her watch again.
Three more minutes remaining to wrap up the memo and email it out. What conclusions could she add? Was there any “low confidence” assessment she could at least offer? The end users would certainly want that, but it could very well end up being a false lead, which, even worse, could send policymakers down the wrong pathway.
The analyst cursed to herself as she considered how much information was available at her fingertips, but how little they truly understood.
P.W. Singer is Co-Founder and Principal at Useful Fiction LLC, a firm that specializes in creating explanatory visions for clients that range from NATO to Fortune 500 companies. He is also a Senior Fellow at New America. August Cole is Co-Founder and Principal at Useful Fiction LLC and a fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. The two are the co-authors of the books Ghost Fleet and Burn-In.