How vast swarms of drones could transform the future of war

How vast swarms of drones could transform the future of war
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  • A small group of nations are developing plans to deploy drone swarms in war.
  • The drones could be used to take out air defenses, or for massed attacks. 
  • Some experts want the technology to be restricted.

In the doomsday scenario where tensions between China and the US erupt into conflict, the first hours of war may well look like a sci-fi movie.

Thousands of drones operating in a coordinated “swarm” could be deployed over China, hoovering up targeting information for US heavy weapons.

The scenario was sketched out in a recent document issued by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank.

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

Though the scenario is speculative, and far from official US military doctrine, it is a glimpse of a plausible future, and one other countries are thinking about too.

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

Drone swarms use cutting-edge technology derived from studying bird flocks and fish shoals to coordinate their movements across a potentially vast area.

They could enable militaries not just to surveil the enemy but be used as weapons to launch huge coordinated bombing attacks. But work remains to be done on identifying their most effective use.

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

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

“Exactly which mission drone swarms are best suited to is unclear, but their potential is huge,” he said. “The challenge is separating where drone swarms really matter from where they’re mostly cool sci-fi stuff.”

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

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Ukraine supercharged drone combat

The invasion of Ukraine has transformed the way drones are being used in war. In the conflict, cheap, airborne drones have been deployed for tasks from surveillance to bombings and even directing the surrender of enemy soldiers.

Drones have also proved their worth at sea and on land.

US military planners are studying the conflict for clues about how to deploy drones for the wars of the future.

“Everybody in the Western military establishments is eagerly trying to understand and digest insights coming out of the war in Ukraine,” said David Ochmanek, an analyst at the RAND Corporation.

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

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

But the lesson from Ukraine, Ochmanek believes, is that drones will feature in conflicts involving even the most powerful nations — on an even larger scale in Ukraine.

Instead of deploying individual drones, each of which is controlled by a single human operator, as in Ukraine, the US could field massive swarms of drones operating autonomously.

In the early hours of a conflict with a major power, such as China, they could help the US secure a key advantage, said Ochmanek.

“We have to find a way in the opening hours of a conflict with China, not weeks or days, but hours, to characterize what’s happening in that battlespace, identify the targets of greatest interest, track those targets, and engage them to destroy them,” said Ochmanek.

China seeks to neutralize US war plans

For years, a problem has bedeviled US military planners.

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

The tactics were deployed to devastating effect by the US against Iraq in both 1991 and 2003. The US obliterated Iraqi air defenses in a matter of hours, giving it control of the battlefield and air space.

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China, which was rapidly gaining economic and military might, was watching, and urgently upgraded its military and refined its tactics.

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

The US was sent back to the drawing board, seeking to regain its advantage. And that, says Ochmanek, is where drones could come in.

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

They can deployed in such vast 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 attacks.

Even though the US uses drones far more expensive than the ones in Ukraine, they are still very cheap compared to a lot of military gear, like fighter jets.

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

Killer robots

But critics are warning that the drone swarms could usher in a terrifying future .

Under the drone swarm plans envisaged by military experts, the machines rely on humans as decision-makers before any actual attacks are made. The drones only give information.

It would not be a big technological leap to give the drones power to make those decisions themselves too.

But the prospect of crossing that moral boundary is raising the alarm.

At the United Nations last year, several countries called for restrictions on the development and use of autonomous drones capable of making life-and-death decisions.

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The US and China both opposed that plan, arguing that current restrictions on using any weapons to indiscriminately target civilians were sufficient to preclude a future of killer robots.

Kallenborn, the analyst, does support more explicit restrictions, arguing that drone swarms could be considered weapons of mass destruction and therefore need to be banned.

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

“Autonomous, armed drone swarms should have restrictions on their use, especially drone swarms targeting humans. We know that autonomous weapons are prone to mistakes; a drone swarm scales that risk a thousandfold,” said Kallenborn.

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

Ochmanek stressed that targeting decisions for drone swarms should still be made by humans, with AI only synthesizing the data.

“As long as there’s a communication link between the mesh and human operators in the rear, humans will be evaluating for themselves the extent to which the mesh is making accurate assessments,” he said.

Countering the swarms

As well as developing plans to deploy drone swarms, defense companies are working on a playbook for countering them.

Research is underway on how to take them out using lasers or microwaves, though both approaches have drawbacks of their own.

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

So far, he added, no magic bullet had been found to counter the swarms. And despite fears about their autonomy, they seem poised to play a central role in the wars of the future.

Read the original article on Business Insider


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