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Drone Swarms – A Future Threat to Armed Forces?

1 December 2020

With the exponential growth of Space-Air-Ground integrated network, swarm robotics, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), more and more countries have been moving towards a technology which enables a single pilot to control multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at once – the drone swarming technology (Chen, 2020a:278). Inspired by swarms of insects, drone swarms are built of multiple units of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are able “to self-organise, to collaborate, and to complete multiple tasks together” (Joyce, 2020). This was largely influenced by military drones becoming more sophisticated and advanced, i.e. much smaller, lighter, cheaper and more jam-resistant, as they are capable to operate at low and medium altitudes. Consequently to these developments, drone swarms are now deployable both for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), offensive and defensive missions as they have greater ISR and longer range and endurance.

As more and more countries have realised the game changing potential of drone swarm technology, i.e., drone swarms reduce soldiers’ training time and lethality rate, increase the survivability of more expensive equipment, and upgrade the overall efficiency of operations, Armed Forces around the world started a race by heavily investing in the development of drone swarms (Yaacoub, 2020). The UK Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), for instance, has freshly presented its recent advancements. On October 7, the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office in cooperation with Leonardo, an Italian arms company, and UK SMEs Blue Bear and Callen Lenz has demonstrated its electronic warfare jamming technology that uses remotely controlled swarms of BriteCloud-equipped drones, which ought to confuse and overwhelm simulated ground-based enemy air defence radars by building strategic redundancy (Defence World, 2020). Blue Bear and Callen Lenz themselves have also been designing the semi-autonomous “loyal wingman drones”, which are a part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) program (Trevithick, 2020). The LANCA is planned to be deployed alongside convectional aircrafts like F-35 and Typhoon to “increase capability, protection, [and] survivability” of manned aircrafts and could potentially “even provide an uncrewed combat air ‘fleet’ in the future” (RAF, 2020).

The U.S. Air Force has also been developing drone swarm technology and is currently preparing to test one of its initiatives – the Golden Horde that envisions “networked, collaborative and semi-autonomous” swarms of air-launched precision-guided weapons, which “share data, interact, develop and execute coordinated actions” in real time and are being able to choose targets according to pre-programmed “playbooks, which provid[e] a choice of plays from which the weapons can choose” (Air Force Research Laboratory, 2020). Likewise, China has also been pursuing drone swarm capabilities for offensive missions. In October 2020, the state-owned company China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), has released a video that shows a test-launch of a “barrage swarm” of “48 kamikaze drones carrying high explosive warheads, potentially powerful enough to destroy tanks and other armour” (Hambling, 2020a). Despite uncertainty about its operability, once launched by a single truck multiple kamikaze drones are able to hover above a potential battlefield, whilst an operator selects strike targets as shown in the video.  

Russia has shifted its focus towards incorporation of small swarming drones in its armed forces as well. During the Kavkas 2020 military exercise, the Russian Defence Ministry showcased for the first time the drills of Southern Military District units armed with UAVs like Forpost drones, Orlan-10s, Eleron-3, which carried out reconnaissance at altitudes varying from 100 to 5 000 meters and targeted moving enemy units, military equipment and command centres on the ground (TASS, 2020). Hambling (2020b) argues that UAVs presented at the Kavkas 2020 do not represent “a true drone swarm in the technical sense”. Nonetheless, the combination of different types of drones into a cooperative swarm illustrates a significant shift and Russia’s acknowledgement of drone swarms becoming a key component of future combat operations. Russia, however, just like other countries, still relies on human operators as drone swarms are managed either manually or semi-autonomously (Chen et. al., 2020b:2). Nevertheless, armed forces around the world are seeking to increase drone swarm autonomy, which would ultimately enable UAVs to cooperatively operate and make decisions in real time without a human operator based on UAV-to-UAV communication. As a result, each country strives to develop AI-powered drone swarms to meet higher mission requirements, which in turn creates both a threat and an opportunity for future battlefields.

As great powers are trying to develop AI softwares for drone swarms and testing them in a simulated environment, non-state actors and small regional powers are already deploying this technology in contemporary military operations, hence to the affordability and miniaturisation of drones. The Turkish Armed Forces, for instance, have already used Kargu kamikaze drones in Libya and Syria, and more recently in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Prior to the war, Azerbaijan purchased Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones equipped with laser-guided missiles, as well as kamikaze drones from Israel and Turkey – Harops and Kargu, which were successfully deployed against Armenian tanks and armoured vehicles (Hambling, 2020c).

As shown during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, fleets of simultaneously launched next generation small drones will be a key feature of future military operations; potentially, if armed with shotguns and weapons of mass destruction, they would not only blind the enemy’s air defence and missile systems but also be capable to perform air-to-air and air-to-ground strikes, which would destroy anything on their way – war fighters, armoured vehicles, ship vessels, and aircrafts (Venable, 2020). Therefore, the successful development of counter drone technology, which will be able to effectively defend “suddenly vulnerable troops, tanks and ships”from drone swarms will become essential (Wolfgang, 2020). The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia has also illustrated how Armenia’s lack of anti-drone jammers disrupting signal allowed Azerbaijan’s drones to move freely on the battlefield (Gressel, 2020). In this regard, Gressel (2020) suggests that European countries should pay a closer attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh war and start designing counter-UAV systems, as European “man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) like the Stinger and Igla […] have little chance of acquiring such small targets”.

Written by Cholpon ABDYRAEVA, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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