How massive swarms of drones could transform the future of war

  • A small group of countries are developing plans to use drone swarms in wars.

  • The drones can be used to eliminate air defenses or for mass attacks.

  • Some experts want the technology to be limited.

In the doomsday scenario in which tensions between China and the US culminate in a conflict, the first hours of the war may resemble a science fiction film.

Thousands of drones operating in a coordinated “swarm” could be deployed over China, gathering targeting information for U.S. heavy weapons.

The scenario was outlined in a recent paper released by the RAND Corporation, an American think tank.

The autonomous drones would use AI to inform US officials as they seek targets for precision missile strikes.

While the scenario is speculative and far from official U.S. military doctrine, it is a glimpse of a plausible future that other countries are also considering.

In China, Israel and Europe, military experts are devising plans for drone swarms that could change the nature of conflicts.

Drone flocks use advanced technology derived from studying bird flocks and fish schools to coordinate their movements over a potentially vast area.

They could allow armies not only to keep tabs on the enemy, but also to be used as weapons to carry out massive coordinated bombing raids. But work remains to be done to identify its most effective uses.

“Drone swarms are useful for a wide range of military operations, from finding and destroying submarines to blowing up tanks and clearing enemy air defenses,” said Zak Kallenborn, an analyst who specializes in drones and weapons of mass destruction.

Kellenborn is a top researcher at Looking Glass USA, a counter-drone consultancy, and is also affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Exactly what mission drone swarms are best suited for is unclear, but their potential is enormous,” he said. “The challenge is to distinguish between where drone swarms really matter and where they are mostly cool sci-fi stuff.”

The threat they pose to the military is so intense that military experts are already working on ways to counter their capabilities.

Ukraine supercharged drone combat

The invasion of Ukraine has changed the way drones are used in war. Cheap airborne drones have been deployed in the conflict for tasks ranging from surveillance to bombing and even directing the surrender of enemy soldiers.

Drones have also proven their value at sea and on land.

U.S. military planners are studying the conflict for clues on how drones could be used for the wars of the future.

“Everyone in the Western military establishment is eagerly trying to understand and digest the insights emerging from the war in Ukraine,” said David Ochmanek, an analyst at the RAND Corporation.

“This sounds terrible this way, but we don’t have many opportunities to learn from real, large-scale battles,” he told BI.

Until recently, some military experts argued that drones were too easy to shoot down and would likely only occur in wars between poorer countries without the means to counter them.

But the lesson from Ukraine, Ochmanek believes, is that drones will play a role in conflicts involving even the most powerful countries – on an even larger scale in Ukraine.

Instead of deploying individual drones, each controlled by a single human operator, as in Ukraine, the US could deploy massive swarms of drones that operate autonomously.

In the early hours of a conflict with a superpower like China, they could help the US secure a key advantage, Ochmanek said.

“We need to find a way in the opening hours of a conflict with China to characterize what’s happening in that battlespace, not weeks or days, but hours, to identify the targets of greatest importance, track those targets and target them involve in destroying them. Ochmanek said.

China is trying to neutralize US war plans

For years, a problem has plagued American military planners.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the US developed tactics to quickly wipe out an enemy’s command systems and air defenses using a combination of satellite surveillance and precision-guided missiles.

This tactic was used by the US against Iraq in both 1991 and 2003 with devastating consequences. The US destroyed Iraqi air defenses within hours, giving the country control of the battlefield and airspace.

China, rapidly gaining economic and military power, watched and urgently upgraded its military and refined its tactics.

It has found ways to move or conceal its air defense systems and other potential targets, making it difficult for the U.S. to locate and possibly destroy them, Ochmanek said. It also developed technology to shield the location of weapons and other key locations from satellites by “blinding” them, US military analysts say.

The US was sent back to the drawing board in an attempt to regain its lead. And that, says Ochmanek, is where drones can play a role.

A drone swarm offers significant advantages in identifying targets in the early hours of a conflict.

They can be deployed in such large numbers that they overwhelm air defense systems. Once there, they can relay live data to human operators who would use it to guide precision missile strikes.

Although the US uses drones that are much more expensive than those in Ukraine, they are still very cheap compared to much military equipment, such as fighter jets.

“The drone swarm seems to us to be a robust way to do what we need to do to get the information we need so that the limited lethality we can generate during the opening hours and days of war is applied effectively and efficiently,” Ochmanek said.

Killer robots

But critics warn the drone swarms could herald a terrifying future.

According to the drone swarm plans being considered by military experts, the machines will rely on humans as decision makers before carrying out actual attacks. The drones only provide information.

It wouldn’t be a huge technological leap to give the drones the power to make those decisions themselves.

But the prospect of crossing that moral line raises alarms.

Last year, several countries at the United Nations called for restrictions on the development and use of autonomous drones that can make life-and-death decisions.

The US and China both opposed that plan, arguing that current restrictions on the use of weapons to indiscriminately attack civilians were enough to rule out a future of killer robots.

Kallenborn, the analyst, favors more explicit restrictions, arguing that drone swarms could be considered weapons of mass destruction and should therefore be banned.

A major problem, he said, is that the technology can make mistakes. And because the drones communicate with each other, one mistake can quickly spread and multiply.

“Autonomous, armed drone swarms should have restrictions on their use, especially drone swarms that target people. We know that autonomous weapons are prone to errors; a drone swarm scales with risk a thousandfold,” says Kallenborn.

“A sensor drone could wrongly identify a school bus as a tank and tell 10 other drones to blow it up too,” he said.

Ochmanek emphasized that decisions about targeting drone swarms should still be made by humans, with AI merely synthesizing the data.

“As long as there is a communication link between the mesh and human operators in the back, people will judge for themselves the extent to which the mesh makes accurate judgments,” he said.

Combating the swarms

In addition to developing plans to deploy drone swarms, defense companies are working on a playbook to counter them.

Research is being done on how to remove them using lasers or microwaves, although both approaches have their own drawbacks.

Another possibility, Ochmanek said, is that drone swarms could be programmed to target other drone swarms.

So far, he added, no silver bullet had been found to combat the swarms. And despite fears for their autonomy, they appear ready to play a central role in the wars of the future.

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