Drifters usually patrol Anoikis (Wormhole system space) and the New Eden cluster in small groups, guarding various sites or pursuing various (unknown) objectives. Normally they never group up in fleets.
The one period they gathered in fleets began shortly after we received the Hilen Tukoss Broadcast in early YC 117, where Drifter fleet sightings became more & more common, leading to various incidents & even outright attacks on various facilities & culminated in the assassination of Empress Jamyl Sarum I by a massive Drifter force. This lead to the Amarr-Drifter war & during the rest of YC 117 & early YC 118, these two powers clashed until the Drifters withdrawn their fleets.
And then it stopped for years, with the Drifters ceasing their fleet formation & their aggressive behaviour towards the Amarr Empire.
Due to the above, these recent Drifter fleet sightings are concerning, as the only major precedent we have on Drifter fleets ended in focused aggression against the Amarr.
The first fleet sighting: The Anoikis encounter
Last Saturday, an ARC patrol fleet stumbled on a Drifter fleet during a routine inspection of the Redoubt Hive complex in the J174618 wormhole system. Before they could withdraw, the 25 Vigilant Tyrannos battleships focused fire on them, instantly destroying a patrol ship. Leaving no chance for the capsuleer to flee, they crack his pod & harvest his corpse, a standard Drifter action.
A damaged Drifter battleship near the Redoubt Hive Complex
Image by Uriel Paradisi Anteovnuecci
As ARC regrouped, they noticed these Drifter ships were heavily damaged, only able to stay in the fight thanks to their advanced shield technologies.
However, despite the presence of this powerful fleet, ARC managed to complete their main objective & took out the Hikanta Tyrannos who resided within the Hive Complex.
Unable to take on the main force with their patrol fleet, plans were made to return with a fleet capable of bringing them down. But then another fleet was sighted...
The second fleet sighting: the Curse massacre
Only a day after the Anoikis encounter, another Drifter fleet was sighted, this time in the fringes of known space, in the H-ADOC system, situated in Curse.
They were spotted around a Triumvirate staging point, collecting corpses. Also observed were the similarities with the Anoikis Drifter fleet, 25 Drifter battleships, many of them heavily damaged.
Two of the resident capsuleer organisations (Triumvirate [TRI] and League of Svelte Men [SVELT]) decided to rally a fleet to engage the Drifters & drive them out.
As the capsuleer forces gathered, they noticed the Drifters had a particular interest in the gate leading to the S-E6ES system, scanning it numerous times, sometimes even gathering their fleet to do it.
Unlike the Anoikis fleet, this one did not engage capsuleer actively, unless fired upon, which is the standard Drifter combat protocol in known space.
Damaged Drifter sighted in Curse
Image by Nomistrav
Once the capsuleer fleet was ready, they proceeded to engage this strong but damaged force. First fleet to engage were the SVELT stealthbombers, who performed several bombing runs on the Drifter taskforce.
These bombing runs demolished the majority of the Drifters with practically no resistance from them, showcasing their unfamiliarity with this capsuleer tactic.
The few remaining Drifters were destroyed by the TRI fighters, cleaning up the field.
The quick demise of the Drifter fleet was a strong showcase of capsuleer power, sending them a strong message should they ever come back.
The third fleet sighting: the Rens incident
And yet, the Drifters returned not a day later, this time in Rens, one of the main trade hubs in Minmatar space. And not only this, they arrived in greater number as well. But just as previous encounters in our space, they took an immediate interest in one of the gates, focusing their scans on it.
As Rens is a busy system, their appearance quickly became known across the cluster & a capsuleer task force was quickly gathered.
As the system lies in high sec, standard fleet tactics could not be used to engage such Drifter numbers, but quickly the decision was made to use large numbers of destroyers to engage them, as they combine firepower, mobility & low cost in one fine package.
Despite the Drifter stance of not attacking unless provoked in known space, the decision to engage them was nonetheless made, as fleets of powerful battleships in foreign space are rarely a good thing. Not to mention that the last time Drifters appeared in fleets, it culminated in the Drifter-Amarr war and hardly anyone is looking for a repeat of that in their space.
Thanks to the large Destroyer task force, the damaged Drifter battleships were unable to overcome the combination of firepower & numbers, leading to their destruction.
But just as the capsuleer force thought it was over, another smaller Drifter fleet warped in.
Wasting little time, the capsuleers regrouped & took on the newcomers as well with their destroyer fleet.
In the end, 44 Drifter battleships were taken down at the cost of over a hundred destroyers, a high cost, showcasing how powerful the Drifter fleets are even in their damaged state.
Epilogue: What is going on?
So what is happening? Is there cause for concern? In my opinion, there is no cause for concern yet, but we do have to stay vigilant & keep close track of any unusual Drifter activity.
After all, the last time Drifter fleets appeared, they became more & more numerous over time, resulting in the Amarr-Drifter conflict.
Ever since the Drifters withdrew from that conflict, no Drifter fleets have been sighted. Until now.
The Discourse report on the 3 Drifter fleet encounters
However, these Drifter fleets all show signs of heavy damage, so whatever is ongoing, it is likely they venture in our space for something different now.
The two fleets in our space have shown great interest in our gates, scanning them intensely for reasons unknown.
It is likely connected to the mysterious Concord Drifter footage that was leaked recently, as explained by ARC personnel in this Discourse report:
Discourse report on the leaked Concord footage & how it could relate to the damaged Drifter fleets
The file is from a Concord subsection involved in monitoring Drifter activity. While unclear, it seems to show an ongoing but unknown stellar event (Edit: further analysis have shown this not to be true, what is shown instead is still unknown). However it is likely linked to the Drifter fleets one way or another due to the timing of the release of this file & the appearance of the damaged Drifter ships. More details are missing & analysis on the footage is still ongoing by ARC personnel.
It is hoped that soon we will know more of what befell the Drifter fleets & why they got a renewed interest in our space & our gate network.
Of known non-capsuleer organisations that could damage the Drifters and force them out in a damaged state, there's 3 main suspects: Note, these are speculations! We have no information at this time to indicate they are involved.
Sansha's Nation: While they used to have a strong wormhole system presence, not much of it is left, so an unlikely culprit, unless the rumours of a secret Sansha stronghold in an undiscovered wormhole system would turn true after all.
Sisters of EvE: With the Thera system colonisation, the Sisters have shown to be capable of launching large scale secret operations in wormhole space. Perhaps the damaged Drifter fleets are the result of yet another of their secret operations?
Amarr Empire: While the Amarr have no presence in wormhole systems, they cannot be discounted, due to the hostile focus their empire received when the Drifters appeared in large numbers for the first time.
Undoubtedly, the Amarr never forgot not forgave the Drifters for their transgressions & have been trying to find ways to hit back at the Drifters in their own space.
Perhaps they succeeded one way or another & struck a blow against them.
Hopefully time will tell what actually happened with the Drifters. But whatever the answer might be, it likely lies in Anoikis