The drone swarms are groups of unmanned planes and drones working together. The huge diversification of drones, robots and other unmanned aerial platforms is creating a very new tactical paradigm.
Boeing’s drone swarms are opening up the field for a new type of aerial warfare and other aerial capabilities in many ways. Even ground control stations are becoming obsolete as new laptop-scale options come onstream.
describes the latest tests of drone swarm systems:
Despite limited flight training, the operator was able to connect with autonomous UAVs, task them and obtain information without using a ground control station.
Boeing and JHU/APL (Johns Hopkins University and Applied Physics Laboratory) conducted two tests last year in which dissimilar unmanned platforms across air, land and sea domains collaborated to autonomously conduct searches and communicate information.
Not quite video game standard, but getting there in a hurry. Drones do have a lot of non-military uses as well. I’m focusing on the military in this article, but other uses include:
• Police work
• Search and rescue
• Safety monitoring
• Disaster relief
• Supply drops (larger drones)
• Traffic control
• Border patrols
• Any role where being airborne is an advantage
Drone swarms in these roles can do a lot of valuable work, very efficiently and at low risk.
Combat economics- Cheap Kill goes mobile
The military side of drone swarms is fascinating, in the same sense Pearl Harbor was interesting.
The understated story here is that the drones are now clearly seen as working alternatives to many military systems formerly done by high cost systems. The huge costs of modern combat systems are killing military capabilities. The Eternal Free Lunch for Contractors of incredible costs for battlefield systems is pricing itself into a corner, particularly in aerospace technology. “Fly by wire” fighters like Raptor and Lightning II are very expensive, very complex, and training is equally costly.
The contractors themselves also have a long supply and R&D chain to manage. They also have, to find a nice word for it, an “icky” range of design issues and neuroses from those with inputs into design. Nobody really wins the dollar equations but freeloaders and position-players. Getting the shortest end of a long stick are the military operators and planners.
Then there’s the shelf life issue. Fighters are generally considered to have a roughly 15-20 year working life. Over that time the cost of a lot of maintenance is also created. This cost base tends to escalate, often dramatically. Initial costs are those of new systems, and end cycle costs are those based on keeping old systems running while trying to replace them with new ones.
Modern fighters are designed to deliver air superiority. This is fundamental to any military operation on any scale. At their operational peak, they do that, very effectively. However, in their declining phase they can be serious liabilities, unable to deliver. They’re very vulnerable, and not just to more modern planes, but to newer ground and sea anti-aircraft systems.
Cheap kill means a missile costing a few thousand bucks can knock out fighters which cost large numbers of millions of dollars, and pilots who cost a lot to train. Kill either the plane or the pilot, and you significantly reduce operational capabilities, as well as sending the enemy’s money down the drain.
Cost, however, is a serious constraint. If you have a look at the flying museums operated by many of the world’s air forces, you can see the problem clearly. Some air forces would have to completely re-equip, re-tool and retrain just to get on an equal footing with possible opponents.
Enter the swarms
This is where the swarms come into play. The new unmanned platforms are a lot cheaper. Their controls have been very much simplified from the early days. Their capabilities have expanded dramatically. They’re not in the F22 or F35 league yet, but you can see where the demand for similar capabilities is likely to come from.
Most importantly they can take over many of the “laundry duty” jobs from the high value fighters. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to send a very valuable plane to drop a couple of smart bombs when you can send a much cheaper drone, or in the case of swarms, drones, to do that. Multiple different drones, in fact, could deliver a lot more support, without wasting the valuable fighter or putting it at risk.
One of the reasons the US now uses cruise missiles as a default strike force is simply because it’s better combat economics. One missile can take out a target which could be a high risk proposition for planes or a dilution of resources. Save time and keep your planes together, where they can enforce air superiority. Common sense, and good in practice.
Drones can also take some of the weight off the choppers. The logic is a bit different, but choppers are also very high value combat systems. They’re the default backup for ground forces, and the demands on them are therefore high. Does a mission justify sending your choppers away from their core roles? If not, send drones. A swarm could do much the same job as a chopper, or more, with the right capabilities.
Drone swarms of the future
Anyone who remembers the old sci-fi cartoon stories of endless robot armies will appreciate the fact that drone swarms can even look like those old stories. The Boeing picture of five UAV drones in a swarm on Space Wars, all with their good fighter-like profiles, look just like that. The other side to the imagery is that they can be just that, too. Cheap kill, whether it’s arrows at Agincourt or RPGs at ten paces, produces highly efficient and very effective cheap weapons. Many of these weapons, historically, have had multiple functions in combat. They could be adapted to different types of roles and different combat environments.
The likely devolution of military drone swarms will have to be based on production design. Why make multiple different models, if you can create one basic cheap platform and make it capable of doing multiple things?
Bearing in mind these drones will be in combat in new types of battlefield environments, “cheap” has to also translate into providing:
1. Combat numbers
2. Operational ranges
3. Multirole capabilities
4. Specialist roles
5. Systems mounting
6. ECM and ECCM capable
7. Signals systems capabilities
8. Weapons systems capabilities
9. Optical and instrument capabilities
10. Power to weight capacity
11. Hard points capacity
These are just the basics. Specific mountings on drones will vary enormously, but you can already see the obvious equations between fighter, chopper and drone capabilities.
This might seem complex, but with efficient production, you could produce drones like iPhones, and in the same gigantic numbers. A good basic production design, properly costed, could make a combat drone as cheap as an infantry weapon. Drones aren’t yet particularly hard targets to knock down by the standards of modern military forces, but if operating in numbers, they don’t need to be. Knocking out 99 drones doesn’t mean a thing if Drone #100 gets through and wipes out your installation or city.
There’s another easily foreseeable issue- Stealthy, agile drones. Drones are extremely agile. They’re not great radar targets when in ground clutter. A wooden drone, in fact, would be a terrible target to try to acquire. They’d be hell for conventional air defences.
A really big drone swarm, say a thousand or so, could be impossible to stop. Some drones would get through and with the right weapons they could do colossal damage. A saturation level attack would be cheaper than a few fighters, and guaranteed to work.
The answer, of course, is a counterstrike by large numbers of hunter/killer drones, designed to hunt other drones. A natural evolution, creating a predator drone species. You could, in fact, have a Battle of Britain drone air war happening almost automatically.
Drone swarms could also knock out expensive fighters, in theory. A standard air to air missile can be scaled down easily enough, or a Stinger-like system could be fitted. The cheap drones could become the default option for nations which can’t afford the ultra-expensive fighters. For those with the fighters, sending them to fight drones isn’t a great option, either. The fighters may not even be able to fire at them, let alone hit them. Drones could become the snipers of the air war, able to do enormous damage with minimal risk.
Any way you look at it, the arrival of cheap new controls and multiple-drone swarm capacity is the start of a rethink of air support and air strategy. If you’re into aerospace, this will be a golden era of innovation and design discoveries.
It could also be a great time to move to another planet. Theoretically, a drone could deliver any kind of weapon, on target. Future warfare with drones could essentially revive the ability to deliver the world’s nastiest weapons. I’d go as far as to say that this is a weapons system where the counters have to be in place before production so you can manage copycat counterattacks.