By Col Sanjiv Kumar (Retd)
Last few years have seen exponential development in unmanned vehicles or radio controlled vehicles (commonly known as drone) technology. Starting from unmanned aerial vehicles, today drones operate in all spheres – land, air, water surface and under surface and are being used in variety of roles including, commercial, scientific, transportation, military and host of other uses, the restriction today is the imagination only.
Imagine swarms of undersea, surface, and aerial drones hunting submarines hidden in the vastness of the ocean. Or imagine hundreds of airborne drones darting through a major world city, seeking out targets and dosing them with chemical agent. These imaginary scenarios are not yet reality, but they are quickly becoming so. Drone swarm technology could have a significant impact on every area of military competition, from enhancing supply chains to delivering even small nuclear bombs.
As the technology underlying drone swarms matures and spreads, the barriers to entry will almost inevitably fall. After all, when reading about drones in 2010, how many of us would have thought that an organization such as Islamic State would have mounted hundreds of drones in a single month or that commercial drones would shut down airports?
The Militaries have been using the drones for Surveillance, target acquisition and now attack drones. However the drones till now have been costly and have limited payload, which greatly restrict their range and capabilities. Larger drones are expensive and project a reasonably large target. Jamming is another major deterrent for military. This is soon changing. Drones are becoming smaller, faster and require less power and have resistance to electronic jamming. Drones are now talking to other drones in air, thereby coordinating their flying and target acquisition.
But just how different is "swarm" technology from the drones that are currently used by militaries across the globe? The key is self-organisation. "If you imagine a football match, a coach isn't going to tell the players from the sidelines exactly where to run and what to do, Players are going to figure that out on their own.
Similarly, the robot agents need to coordinate among each other what actions to take." Instead of being individually directed by a human controller, the basic idea of a drone swarm is that its machines are able to make decisions among themselves. So far the technology has been at an experimental stage, but it is edging closer to becoming a reality.
In February, the UK Defence Secretary said "swarm squadrons" will be deployed by the British armed forces in the coming years. The US has also been testing interconnected, co-operative drones that are capable of working together to overwhelm adversaries.
Low-cost, intelligent and inspired by swarms of insects, these new machines could revolutionize future conflicts. From swarming enemy sensors with a deluge of targets, to spreading out over large areas for search-and-rescue missions, they could have a range of uses on and off the battlefield. Swarms come in different shapes and sizes. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been working on a programme dubbed Gremlins; micro-drones the size and shape of missiles, designed to be dropped from planes and perform reconnaissance over vast areas.
Precisely defined, drone swarms are- “Multiple unmanned platforms and/or weapons deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behavior based on communication with one another.”
The fact that components of the swarm can communicate with one another, makes it different from group of individual drones. Communication allows the swarm to adjust behavior in response to real-time information.
Drones equipped with cameras and other environmental sensors (sensor drones) can identify potential targets, environmental hazards, or defences and relay the information to the rest of the swarm. The swarm may then maneuver to avoid a hazard or defence, or a weapon-equipped drone (an attack drone) may strike the target or defence. Real-time information collection makes drone swarms well-suited for searching over broad areas for mobile or other hard-to-find units.
As evening fell on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in western Syria, the first drones appeared, then more, until 13 were flashing on radars, speeding towards the airbase and a nearby naval facility. The explosives-armed aircraft were no trouble for Russian air defences, which shot down seven and jammed the remaining six.
But the failed attack in January last year was disturbing to close observers of drone warfare. It was the first instance of a mass-drone attack. It was also the highest number of drones that was used on state actors use simultaneously in a combat operation. It has opened a new warfare tactics.
The future of warfare is “small, smart, and cheap platforms.” Swarms of drones as one example, arguing the costs are already low and likely to become lower. Ultimately, the cost and its relevance depend in part on what role the swarm will play and what alternatives are available. Even multimillion-dollar drone swarms can be cost-effective on balance if they meaningfully increase the survivability of more expensive or particularly crucial platforms, such as aircraft carriers or nuclear deterrent forces.
Simple, low-cost drones may also fill capability gaps, such as the Special Forces/ Armoured Columns interest in small tactical drones and drone swarms to provide infantry organic close air support and recce.
Airborne warning and control aircraft (AWAC) can be used to control multiple swarms of drones and employ them with devastating results. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has added another dimension to warfare, the drone swarms can now be controlled by AI, having a mix of surveillance, communication, Electronic Warfare, weapons platform and kamikaze drones. The swarm is a deadly weapons' system which will have devastating potential.
In the war, drone swarm with 100's of drones emerges and moves towards a potential target, the air defence begin to acquire and shoot down the drones, being small targets they are difficult to acquire and engage, yet a few a dropped by the AD Gunners, the balance of the swarm moves with speed to designated target which is Armored Columns in Forward Assembly Areas.
The swarm reaches its target and the AI takes over, to control each drone- the drones with surveillance gives real time live feed of deployment, the weapons' drones engage targets and the Kamikaze drones do their designated role. There is chaos in the area the crews try to save their tanks, the fuel and ammo dumps go up in flame. 15-20 tanks are in different stages of damage. The entire operation is already doomed before it crosses the international border.
The enemy has made the bridgehead in a surprisingly fast operation. The defence commander is unable to muster adequate armour for counter attack, the break out can happen in next few hours. The adversary and the tanks columns advance is noticed into the bride head for breakout. The mine fields are still not laid and there is no time to lay mines. The drone swarm of 1000's of drones is unleashed, each of these are carrying one anti tank mine. They go into the areas where the thrust is coming and drop the mines just ahead of the advancing columns. The enemy tank column comes to grinding halt, to begin mine clearing operations. The sitting duck armour now is taken out using Air power and Artillery.
In future, it may be far more economical to send a swarm of drones than risk sending high value assets like aircrafts into enemy airspace, which if shot down will make world headlines. Take the case of Balakot strike of 2019, if India had the swarm drones, they need not risk sending in aircraft deep inside Pakistan to engage terrorist camps. Drones could have achieved the objective with far less vulnerability. If one aircraft would have been shot down in Pakistan in this raid, the successful operation would have been termed as a disaster.
Kargil Operation required hundreds of thousands of artillery ammunition being fired to engage the target and soften the objective. Number of shells missed the target and went over the crest or fell way short of the objective. The drone swarms could have done a similar task at much lower cost and more effectively, by targeting individual enemy bunker, position or dump. Though the Artillery may refute this but they too know the reality.
Drone swarm technology has significant implications for both the offensive and defensive sides of the nuclear deterrence equation.
Swarms offer new means of defeating traditional nuclear delivery systems — a defensive advantage. They could serve as novel missile defences, potentially even against hypersonic missiles. Imagine 100,000 cheap, simple drones forming a dome over a high-value target. Any incoming missile, no matter how fast or maneuverable, would likely hit a drone (whether lightweight drones are enough to damage a reentry vehicle or throw it off course is an open question). The same drones could also serve effectively as air mine, colliding with or exploding in the vicinity of incoming bombers.
Even small drones can significantly damage airplane wings. This could be especially effective against low-flying bombers because there is less airspace to cover and defenders can use short-range drones. Finally, multi-domain swarms of undersea, surface, and/or aerial drones could search the ocean for adversary submarines. The drones might locate, follow, relay information about, or attack the submarines. They also could draw information from broader sensor networks.
However, drone swarms also offer new means to improve nuclear delivery — that is, nuclear offense. States are already pursuing drone delivery systems for nuclear weapons, and drone swarms can also improve existing nuclear delivery systems without being armed with a nuclear weapon.
Just as they may be able to serve as air and missile defences, drone swarms can be used to defeat, disable, or trick those same defences. While it’s true that air and missile defences are highly mobile, creating huge challenges for locating and destroying them, drone swarms have the advantage of being able to spread out broadly to search for them. Along the same lines, Israel used drone decoys to trick Syrian air defences into believing they were Israeli aircraft.
Drone swarms could do the same in larger, more distributed numbers to encourage defences to hit the drones instead of the delivery systems carrying nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Drone swarms would move more effectively as a unit, akin to how groups of actual aircraft would behave.
Swarms may also improve nuclear targeting. Drones can be used to collect information to identify vulnerabilities or previously unknown defences. Traditional delivery systems such as cruise missiles, while not technically drones, might incorporate drone swarm technology to adjust their approach en route, for instance based on other systems’ success or failure in striking targets. This is especially useful for counterforce strikes against an adversary’s military, which hinge on accurate and comprehensive target identification and precise strikes on those targets.
Improved targeting is less important for second strikes and counter-value strikes, which target cities and civilians. Additionally, more accurate weapons mean fewer warheads and delivery systems would be needed. Targeting improvements may also lower upkeep or other costs.
Will drone swarms ultimately improve nuclear offense more than they would improve nuclear defence? It’s unclear. But theoretically, emerging technologies that improve the ability to defeat nuclear weapons are more disruptive to overall nuclear competition than improvements to delivery.
Nuclear weapons already inflict such significant damage that delivery improvements are unlikely to fundamentally alter the character of nuclear warfare. If North Korea can significantly deter the United States with a small, simple nuclear arsenal, for instance, delivery systems improvements seem unlikely to alter the fundamental dynamic. Therefore, while drone swarm technology could aid attacking states, the improvements for defenders are likely to matter more.
Chemical and Biological Weapons
Drone of swarm is likely to encourage chemical and biological weapons proliferation and improve the capabilities of states that already possess these weapons. Terrorist organizations are also likely to be interested in the technology, especially more sophisticated actors like the Islamic State, which has already shown interest in drone-based chemical and biological weapons attacks.
Drone swarms may also aid counter-proliferation, prevention, and response to a chemical or biological attack, but those applications appear less significant than the offensive applications.
Dispersed attacks also allow for more careful targeting. Instead of spraying large masses of agent, drones could search for and target individuals or specific vulnerabilities such as air ventilation systems. This also means the drones would not need to carry as much agent.
Moreover, drone swarms enable the use of combined arms tactics. Some attack drones within the swarm could be equipped with chemical or biological payloads, while others could carry conventional weapons. Chemical or biological attack drones might strike first to force adversary troops into protective gear that inhibits movement, then follow up with conventional strikes. Although combined arms tactics are possible with current delivery systems, drone swarms allow much closer integration between conventional and unconventional weapons.
The moral opposition to chemical and biological weapons has much to do with their indiscriminate nature and the consequential risk of collateral harm. With improved targeting, including employing drone-based environmental sensors, it’s possible to imagine less error-prone, more discriminate chemical and biological weapon delivery systems that might be less morally objectionable. Drone can also help in identifying NBC weapons storage and manufacturing facilities.
The drones like most high-tech products have been going a price down grade every year. Today a swarm of 100 drones will cost less than a cargo round of 155 MM artillery gun. A 1000 swarm will be less than one missile. This price is expected to go down with every year. The results at the target end would be out of proportion to cost.
Drone swarms are particularly vulnerable to electronic warfare attacks. Because drone swarms are dependent on drone-to-drone communication, disrupting that signal also disrupts the swarm. As swarms become more sophisticated, they will also be more vulnerable to cyber attack. Adversaries may attempt to hijack the swarm by, for example, feeding it false information, hacking, or generating manipulative environmental signals.
Although numerous counter-drone systems are in development, current defence do not appear sufficient and even promising systems will face scalability challenges, from deployment allocation to training, in the system’s use.
There are EW drones being worked upon which are going to target enemy jammers and communication to prevent the manipulation of drones. In a swarm of drone a few dedicated drones could have this acceptability.
For now, military drone use is dominated by lightweight surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger attack UAVs. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future, according to Jane’s, orders for both types of device are expected to increase dramatically in the decade ahead. But the assaults on Khmeimim, as well as Armco oil field attacks, were early flashes of a possible future for aerial warfare: drone swarming.
The technology of swarming – drones deployed in squadrons, able to think independently and operate as a pack – is in its infancy, but armed forces around the world, are investing millions of Dollars in its development.
The intelligence community should collect information on adversaries’ interests in and experimentation with drone swarms, including those related to CBRN. The potential applications of drone swarms are extremely broad, and adversaries may identify novel, disruptive applications. The intelligence community should pay particular attention to China’s drone swarm research, as the Chinese have shown considerable interest in the technology.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.