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Heralding the Arrival of Drone Swarms

As many were ringing the new year, India was busy preparing a show of force. The world witnessed as, for the first time ever, India’s military deployed a swarm of 75 autonomous drones that destroyed simulated targets. As it did, the Indian military joined the growing list of armies capable of conducting swarming attacks using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The word “swarm” has an inherently negative connotation attached to it, bringing to mind pictures of insects gathering to sting or attack. However, before defense experts chime in to warn against this “future weapon of mass destruction” that is coming to “swarm our skies,” we must break down what drone swarms actually are, what kind of threat they pose, and, more importantly, how we can protect against them.

UNDERSTANDING THE SWARM

At its core, a drone swarm consists of multiple UAVs that are capable of independently making decisions and self-organizing. The “swarm” application essentially means that the drones communicate and collaborate with each other as well as with their launch mechanism (i.e. helicopters or aircrafts) to share inflight and targeting data as well as the changing circumstances of their attack approach, often through pre-programmed autonomous features. Within a combat environment, the “swarm” will keep attacking the target until it is eliminated, with multiple military UAVS communicating and coordinating to determine the best course of action to achieve the objective. For example, Russian drone swarms have been designed so that each drone in the group takes a turn being in the leading role until it detonates and transfers the command-function to the next drone, and so on.

The behavior of drone swarms replicates the movements observed in swarms of insects according to a set of three rules: “separate” where they are required to maintain a minimum set distance between each other; “align” to guide your system towards the average direction of the others; and “cohere” or move the best you can to the same position to keep the group together. To achieve this, the swarm will often include different kinds of UAVs charged with diverse tasks for the joint mission: the job of an unarmed drone could be to scout, collect, and analyze information from the field to then transmit to other armed drones, whose job is to destroy the target, so they know where best to detonate or strike. Generally, these systems will be integrated with artificial intelligence as well as tools such as GPS, sensors and radars, and cameras.

SHOULD WE BE AFRAID?

The strength of drone swarms lies not only in their numbers but also in their ability to synchronize their attacks in the goal of overwhelming conventional air defense systems by coming from all different directions at once.

The truth is that there are currently very few of these weapon systems capable of engaging with their targets without any human intervention. Furthermore, most states are still in the process of testing these technologies in simulated environments which are much different than  true conflict zones. Nonetheless, a noticeable threat that has risen due to the diffusion of drone technologies is that swarms are now used by both state actors and more importantly non-state actors, specifically terrorist groups. On one hand, the number of countries developing or looking to acquire drone swarm technologies is expanding. In 2020, China unveiled a barrage swarm launcher which it claimed could fly 48 armed drones. Turkish company STM delivered 500 kamikaze drones reported to have swarming capabilities to the country’s armed forces. This year, South Africa presented at the International Defense Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, a new long-range drone system. Last April, the US successfully destroyed a surface vessel using a swarm of UAVs for the first time. On the other hand, we have also witnessed increased instances of drone swarm activities by non-state actors. In 2018, in Western Syria at a Russian airbase, a total of 13 drones launched by insurgents were intercepted and shot down. In 2019, a swarm of 25 drones attacked the Saudi Aramco oil facilities in two waves. Although most of these coordinated attacks did not have the independent AI capacities described above, they nonetheless successfully conveyed the danger drones pose as a group to sensitive infrastructure. These events have also highlighted how the strength of drone swarms lies not only in their numbers but also in their ability to synchronize their attacks in the goal of overwhelming conventional air defense systems by coming from all different directions at once.

The good news is that drone swarms aren’t as terrifying as they sound… for now. Their use has, thankfully, mostly been limited to date to controlled environments and consisted of non-advanced drones. Nonetheless, even considering that this will take some time, technologies will mature and proliferate which will then potentially pose a greater danger if no effective counter-swarm systems have been successfully developed.

DEFENDING AGAINST SWARMS

Can we defend against swarms? The short answer: “Yes, we can.”

Is there, however, a “best” way to counter them? Simply put, no.

The fundamental issue is that no solutions to counter drones were designed to deal with swarms specifically. Many of these tools break down against multiple targets, and because swarm technology is still very new and being developed, what works best is subject to change. For the moment, counter-swarm technologies that are getting a lot of attention are microwave weapons. Essentially, these tools convert energy from a power source typically a plug found on a military vehicle or engine into radiated electromagnetic energy and will then focus it on a target to damage the drones’ equipment. High-power fiber laser weapons are also being developed, which are said to have a theoretical no point of failure, meaning that as long as the weapon can be powered it has the ability to fire over and over until the target is destroyed or neutralized. These defensive tools are still premature and will need further years of work to prove truly effective. For now, they require an intense amount of energy and may not be sustainable for long periods of time. This is a common issue found within the procurement process of most counter-drone technologies where the defense sector has long been at work trying to develop the “perfect” solutions. The process has proven to be timely and strenuous in terms of resources, perhaps making them forget that the key may not lie in an independent system but in a combination of all of them.

Without necessarily needing to ring alarm bells regarding an imminent large-scale drone swarm attack, it is important to adopt a balanced approach when examining this topic so as to not over-exaggerate the threat but also not to under-estimate the potential for larger damage. Swarming capabilities are here, they have proved effective in certain contexts, but more importantly they are also constantly developing. Realistically speaking, non-state actors developing advanced long-range drone swarm technologies will not happen overnight. However, the seeds have been planted. As such, it is fundamental for states to match the pace of the development of counter-swam technologies to the one of offensive systems.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a freelance defense & security reporter covering the MENA region. She recently moved to Milan, Italy where she joined the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) working as an Events Assistant and also became a Research Fellow for the Italian research centre TheSquare. Her publications have centered around the evolution of targeted killings outside of armed conflict, the proliferation of armed UAVs, and the development of defensive technologies as well as Middle Eastern approaches to defense modernization. She completed her Master’s degree in Terrorism and Political Science last year from the University of St-Andrews in Scotland.  


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