Swarm Drones - New Frontier of Warfare

A new way altogether of releasing force on the enemy, Swarm Drones will play a dominant role in the conflicts of the future, with more and more states and non-state actors using this technology

Issue: Aero India 2021 Special By Lt General Dushyant Singh (Retd)Photo(s): By DARPA
MANNED-UNMANNED – the control of unmanned systems from a manned aircraft

Introduction

Drone Warfare is being extensively and effectively used by many countries to conduct hybrid warfare against their adversaries. For example, the US has employed drones with telling effect in the Afghanistan war to target the fighters and leaders of Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Recently it targeted the Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. Other countries that have used drones are Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Nigeria against Boko Haram, Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Saudi Arabia in Libya and Yemen. Swarm drone attacks with loiter capability have made drone warfare even more deadlier and lethal. A classic example of swarm drone attack was conducted by Yemeni Houthi rebels on two Aramco installations of Saudi Oil Companies by 18 drones and three low-flying missiles which many believe was actually conducted by Iran given the sophistication of the attack. However, drone warfare shot into limelight during the recent Azerbaijan - Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. During the conflict drones were used by Azeri defence forces against the Armenian land forces with telling effect.

Proliferation of Drones

The United States, China, Russia, and Britain are in advance stages of developing this technology. In 2017, the US carried out trials with 103 ‘Perdix Quadcopter Drones’ functioning as a swarm. As per Lt General Bali Pawar, a well-known aviation expert, the US research agency DARPA has developed micro drones of the size and shape of missiles designed to be dropped from planes. The US Navy is also working on ‘Low Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology’ (LOCUST). Russia is also working on the concept of drone swarming and is probably trying to integrate drones with its ‘Sixth Generation Fighter Aircraft’. Similarly, the UK is also working on Swarm attack technology. While qualitatively the US is still world leader in drone technology, it is the Chinese who have taken the lead in manufacturing and proliferating drones in the world. As per an article published in November 2020 by a New York based Foreign Affairs article that prior to 2011 only three countries possessed armed drones but between 2011 to 2020 there are 18 countries that have armed drones of which 11 countries have been supplied drones by China. What is of even greater worry is that most of the countries who have procured these drones are non-democracies. Therefore, its employment for hybrid warfare and by militants or terrorist organisations is likely to increase. The Iran backed Houthi swarm drone attack on Saudi Oil Company facility is a recent example.

DARPA’s CODE (Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment)

Swarm Drone: Chinese Activities

China is also working towards developing a swarm drone operational concept of war fighting. Towards this end it has started testing swarm drone attack technology for warfighting since 2017 on a regular basis as reported by Global Times a Chinese Daily. Swarm drones are of two types: first “Fixed Wing Swarms” and second Quadcopter Swarms. China holds the world record in both categories beating the US in the process. In fixed wing UAV swarms it has flown 119 UAVs in June 2017 by Chinese Electronic Technology Corporation (CETC) beating the US record of 103 fixed wing UAVs in January 2017. The fixed wing UAV swarm divided into different groups, with each group circling over its intended target and thereafter, manoeuvring as a group to ascertain the viability of carrying out coordinated reconnaissance, distributed surveillance and saturated strikes over ground targets. Similarly, the Chinese company Ehang demonstrated the world largest quadcopter UAV swarms comprising 1,374 UAVs on April 29, 2018. China recently conducted a test of Stealth attack Swarm tech drone. The state of the art drone is capable of being launched from trucks, helicopters, and Sea platforms. It is about 1.2 meters long, maximum speed 150 kmph and an operating radius of 15 km. These type of drones function like normal drones during recce mode but transform into a cruise missile and launch suicide attacks when they receive the order. Swarm drones attack the target by integrating two critical technologies: machine and artificial intelligence.

Swarm drones are multiple unmanned aerial flying platforms integrated as a single networked system self contained for communication, reconnaissance and weapons/munitions to strike an enemy target

The concept of swarm drone operation envisages integrating and flying a large number of UAVs carrying sensors, weapons/munitions and communication equipment on board and obtaining inputs, building a comprehensive battle picture and communicating to multiple users in a simple manner and in real-time. Such a concept increases the probability of success of a mission as there are built in redundancies in the concept. For example, if an UAV is shot down or jammed its functions get taken over by another UAV. Swarm drones are multiple unmanned aerial flying platforms integrated as a single networked system selfcontained for communication, reconnaissance and weapons/munitions to strike an enemy ground based target. The successful use of drones by Azerbaijan which was supported by Turkey and Israel has comprehensively validated the employment of drones in a conventional setting beyond doubt. This once again has upheld the supremacy of air power in a future battlefield against a legacy large ground forces with relatively poor air defence forces.

At present air defence guns and missiles are being used to counter drone threat however, they are practically ineffective against hundreds of Swarm drones. But as it happens with any path breaking technology, in the initial stages it pays rich dividends for example dynamite, guns, tanks, aircrafts but soon counter measures are also invented to neutralise or minimise the impact of such technologies. Research is on to counter swarm drone threats. An area which looks most promising to counter such threat may lie in the electronic and communication domain - it is just a matter of time when an effective counter UAV system would be developed. Even in the physical destruction domain efforts are on to find suitable weapon systems. The number of flaws that were noticed in the Chinese demonstration of the world’s largest swarm display on May 1, 2018 justifies this conclusion. 496 drones in the May 1, 2018 demonstration deviated from their path and few of them just returned back after taking off. This was attributed to GPS jamming. The other limitation of the Chinese drones is their limited scope in terms of range and GPS denied area operability. On the other hand, the US drones are air launched and can be recovered by aircrafts, operate upto 300 nautical miles and continue on their mission even in a GPS denied area of operations. Although the Chinese are actively pursuing research in making their drones jamming resistant and capable of operating in GPS denied areas there is a scope to disrupt this disruptive new warfare capability.

Advantages Offered by Swarm Drones

Greater Survivability as the drones are difficult to detect hence chances of their survival is far greater as compared to manned aircraft. Similarly, being a network of weapon systems of multiple drones, even if they get detected and a few of them shot down, the function of the destroyed is taken over by other UAVs in the Swarm. However, if they get detected they are easy to shoot down. Houthi rebels have shot down a few drones of the US. An important conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the system may not survive against a contested battlefield environment with robust AD systems and offensive cyber-attack capabilities.

Cheaper Options to Armed Forces especially that do not enjoy conventional weapon superiority over their adversaries such as Pakistan over India or India over China. The drone technology is gaining popularity rapidly over countermeasure systems to such threats such as air defence or electronic countermeasure systems. As discussed weapon systems to counter drone technologies will be developed in the short term. Swarm drones are likely to rule the roost and if India is not to be left behind then at least in this technology it must quickly catch up with the world leaders.

Effectively beats legacy AD Systems as proved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict especially when faced with swarm drone attacks. However, their chances of success against integrated AD systems of leading powers like the US, Russia or China is highly debatable which are networked and layered comprising long, medium and short range weapon systems to defend their air and land space. Without a networked and layered AD system even the US systems failed to detect the Houthi drone attack on Saudi Oil Company facilities. The Air Defence systems today must be supported by electronic warfare and specialised counter unmanned systems (C-UAS) to defend against Swarm Drone attacks.

Disruptive Effect against Ground based Weapon Systems. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict the Armenian tanks, Mechanised Infantry vehicles, artillery guns and limited Air Defence weapon systems were picked up and destroyed like ninepins by the Azeri drones supplied by Turkey and Israel thus proving a point that efficacy of such weapons in a limited AD environment will do wonders. It also gives an opportunity to countries like India to redefine their force structuring and military capability development. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has proven that a small conventional force led by persistent drone attacks is not only a lethal and potent option but also a cheaper option. Although critics might say that we can operate with impunity after achieving air superiority or favourable air situation but in a swarm drone battle space this may just be partially true. The primary weapon platform of the ground forces, the tank, also came under fire from the drones thus suggesting that probably tanks will now have to carry a C-UAS system with them to ensure their security like an anti-missile system.

Limited effect of Terrain, Camouflage and Dispersion was distinctly visible as highlighted by Michael Kofman writing in Moscow Times. The drones were able to overcome the terrain and camouflage advantages of the ground forces through onboard sensors and reconnaissance equipment of the drones. Similarly, with loiter capability and mass drone employment the dispersion tactics was also neutralised. The Armenians Armed Forces had no chance in hell to fight the Azeris who were larger in numbers (Azerbaijan is ranked 68th to Armenia being 100th in Global Firepower Index) and better in quality due to strong backing by Turkey and even supported to a limited extent by the Israelis.

Where does India Stand?

India recently demonstrated a swarm drone technology demonstration with Quadcopters on Army Day 2021. However small it may be but it has definitely indicated the intent of the Indian Armed Forces to move in this direction. It is the next frontier of warfare and we better be amongst the leaders in this domain. While there are a number of strategic lessons to be learnt from the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict, it is military lessons highlighted above that should be of concern for us. India is deadlocked into perpetual conflict with Pakistan which greatly resembles the setting of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, in recent times India is dealing with an aggressive and expansionist China and locked into a prolonged eyeball to eyeball conflict in Ladakh whose prognosis remains uncertain. We must also be cognisant of the fact that China today enjoys a significant edge in drone technology in fact it is almost in league with the world leader the US. So where does India stand. Sadly, while a number of startups have sprung up in this sector, we have a long way to go. While interacting with a few players and experts it was realised that a decisive public-private partnership backed strongly by the Ministry of Defence in collaboration with the world leaders (USA, Israel or UK) in this technology is the only way to catch up with China.

Conclusion

Fortunately, in keeping with the above approach India has also commenced development of such a system in collaboration with the US as part of the 2 Plus 2 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). However, with the advent of the Biden era it needs to be closely watched whether this initiative will be taken forward on high priority. Meanwhile, HAL is also working in collaboration with a startup “New Space Research Technology.” The proposed system is named as ‘Air Launched Flexible Asset-Swarm’ (ALFA-S). It is likely to be a 1 – 2 meters long canister based drone capable of being launched from air crafts / helicopters. As per HAL, it may take upto two years to develop a prototype. Similarly, as discussed earlier we need to develop the ability to deal with such threats. Solutions have to be found both in terms of ability to shoot them down and neutralizing them through electronic warfare. Writing is clear on the wall, unless we remain abreast with the world leaders in niche technology areas of defence we will remain handicapped in any future traditional or non-traditional threats. India must ensure that the “Swarm Drone Attack System” is based on the principles of size of the swarm, survivability of the drones and the mix of the various types of drones in operations both for conventional and unconventional threats. Likewise, based on this emerging frontier of warfare India should review it’s warfighting doctrine, concepts, capabilities and if need be modifying its force structure. It is a highly competitive and devastating battlefield of the future and we need to match up to the changing dynamics of warfare and technologies associated with it.