US Bets On ‘Drone Swarms’ To Stop China’s Invasion Of Taiwan; IAF Expert Explains Why They Could Be Both ‘Asset & Threat’

OPED By Anil Chopra

The US Navy is co-opting the defense industry to quickly develop swarming drones, including underwater drones, that will neutralize the numerical superiority that the Chinese PLA Navy enjoys in the Indo-Pacific region. What are swarming drones, and why can they be both a threat and an asset for a country like India? Former Indian Air Force Air Marshal, Anil Chopra, explains.

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In their conflict with Hamas, in May 2021, the Israel Defence Forces became the first military to use a drone swarm in combat. This self-communicating and coordinating drone swarm struck “dozens” of targets. Some other targets were simultaneously being attacked by missiles and other munitions.

Drone swarms may be more efficient and robust for certain applications than single drones because swarms can complete a variety of tasks in parallel without human supervision.

The Mehar Baba competition of the Indian Air Force (IAF) actually ushered in the drone swarm revolution in the country. In November 2021, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) showcased the armed swarm drone technology to the Indian Army (IA) at an event in Jhansi.

The 25-drone swarm flew with minimal human intervention and was capable of identifying & striking targets. A dazzling 10 minutes choreographed drone lightshow of 3,500 indigenous drones was made at the Beating the Retreat ceremony in January 2024 at New Delhi.

China has demonstrated the launch of over 200 swarm drones from a 48-tube launcher from a helicopter, and the drones switched between formations and conducted reconnaissance and attack missions.

Many other countries, including the US, Russia, Australia, Republic of Korea, among others, have showcased drone swarm capabilities. There is a clear difference between attacks by a large number of stand-alone drones being used to attack targets vis-à-vis a drone swarm.

Understanding The Drone Swarm

A drone swarm is an autonomously networked small unmanned aerial system (UAS) operating collaboratively to achieve common objectives with or without an operator being in the loop.

Members of a swarm perform complex twisting and turning maneuvers, changing direction, altitude, and speed in flight. High-speed computations, complex algorithms, and a host of sensors make it possible.

The real issue is mutual coordination through their own artificial intelligence (AI) and constant communication using interconnecting data links. Drone swarms draw inspiration from nature. They fly and maneuver somewhat like the Starling murmurations.

There is no limit to the number of drones in a swarm. Depending on size, type, mission and task, they could be from a few hundred to many thousands. They are autonomous and make their own collective decisions. They use sensors and intelligent algorithms to fly flight paths and avoid collisions among themselves. Collision avoidance requires sensors to accurately know their own position and separation distances.

Each drone must have the ability for real-time sensing and also be able to predict its neighbor’s future position. Typically the drones may rely on radio frequency (RF), cellular or satellite communications (SATCOM).

Each member of the swarm or group could have their own tasks. Members or groups may detach from the main swarm to take on different tasks in different directions and locations.  While the drones are autonomous, they could be connected to a ground control station (GCS) for possible en-route change of assignment.

The elements of the swarm must have the ability to steer themselves to maintain separation from other swarm members to avoid collisions; they should be able to maintain alignment and cohesion in the assigned direction. Other capabilities could be the ability to leave and regroup and manage obstacle clearance. Each drone should have stand-alone capability to acquire and attack the target.

Drone swarms could have many civilian applications, but currently, militaries are doing leading research on their employability for both offensive and defensive tasks. These could mean acting as air defense sensors, for weapons saturation, or use as loitering munitions against airborne or surface targets.

Drone swarms could also be used to counter adversary drone swarms. The drone swarm technology concept could also be used on land to create a force of robot soldiers for land warfare or submarine swarms to tackle sea-surface or submarine threats.

Scientists in China have unveiled a drone swarm capable of navigating through a dense bamboo forest without human guidance. Ultimately, a drone could also be part of Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUMT).

Drone Swarm Operational Structure

Drones have a variety of sensors, payloads, and weapons. There is a designated leader or group of leaders. Specific group members may be authorized to assume drone control or hand over leadership to other members if the swarm leader gets disabled.

The drones are being classified based on their specialized tasks. There are multi-role drones. The physical composition of types in a drone swarm will be based on the mission tasks and objectives.

An aerial drone swarm to suppress enemy air defenses (SEAD) will be different from a swarm that will attack a concentration of troops or multiple targets on an airfield.  The final call of the numbers and combination of types will be that of the mission commander.

The drones may be categorized into strike drones, sensor platforms, communication and relay drones, saturation and decoy drones, and mother-ship drones.

Drones in a swarm could carry out kinetic attacks using onboard guns, bombs, or missiles. Loitering drones could carry top-attack anti-tank smart munitions. Munitions-laden small drones could fly themselves into targets in a kamikaze attack.

The drone swarm could be engaged in an electronic attack. In a large swarm, the drones will normally be of small size and would thus carry smaller payloads.

Homogenous swarms have similar drones. Heterogeneous swarms have drone type mix. Operationally, heterogeneous swarms can perform many roles simultaneously, such as information gathering, communications relaying, and weapon delivery.

The swarm could have dedicated sensor drones with electro-optical or infrared payloads or even chemical sensors. These sensors could coordinate with each other to assess the air or surface battle environment ahead.

Such information is shared among the swarm and can be used for tactical routing to avoid defenses or for neutralizing the threat. The swarm can also order a drone to self-destruct itself to fulfill mission objectives.

Decoy drones can take the information to plan their maneuvers. Information could also be transmitted to ground stations for sharing with other platforms. The inputs could also be transmitted to armed ground drones and robots to help guide their fires.

Critical elements are the drones handling intra and inter-drone communications. They not only ensure swarm integrity but serve as an external link with mother aircraft, ground stations, or other swarms.

They are vulnerable to electronic warfare. Jamming of communications could send the swarm into disarray, and there could be collisions. During adversary communications jamming, the communications drones have the ability to pass emergency instructions through backup frequencies to abort a mission or take fallback positions. Such drones have higher capacity battery power packs.

In the swarm, there are often decoy drones that carry no specific payload. Having larger numbers of drones, at a fractional extra cost, adds to the overall mass that adds to the capability to overwhelm the enemy’s defensive and offensive elements.

The decoys are positioned on the swarm periphery to take hits so that sensor-laden ones get protected. Some of these could have higher radar and IR signatures, pretending to be larger aircraft, and they could fly at a distance from the remaining swarm to confuse the adversary.

Some swarms also have mothership drones. This drone is larger and could transport a large number of drones to the tactical area. The drones are then released to form a swarm. Being larger, they can have a larger battery pack and carry out communication and other support roles for the swarm.

Drone Swarm Offensive Operation

Drone swarms will allow more daring concepts of operation (CONOPs). They will be used in all kinds of classic offensive air operations. Drone swarms will be employed for ISR purposes in enemy territory.

The air forces traditionally open their campaigns with suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and offensive counter-air (OCA).  SEAD entails neutralizing surface-based air defense weapon systems and early warning and command and control radars.

This can be done by hard kill and electronic warfare or a combination of the two. Such missions require revisits as the war progresses. A well-prepared adversary in a highly contested environment will try to thwart such an attempt, and it could mean heavy losses for the attacking force.

Such missions that have often been termed “dangerous” can now be flown by multiple drone swarms. They will also be able to saturate the defenses. The missions will be much less expensive in terms of loss to platforms and humans.

OCA primarily involves targeting adversary airbases to destroy aircraft on the ground, uproot runways to make them unusable, and destroy other infrastructure like hangars, aircraft repair areas, weapon storage areas, air traffic control facilities, and bulk fuel storage areas.

Airbases are normally well-defended with layers of air defense. This can best be attacked by drone swarms. Drones in groups of large numbers could perform kamikaze attacks on various airfield facilities.

They could liter the runways and aircraft operating surfaces with time delay bomb-lets.  They could pulverize missile sites. A large drone swarm could affect the morale of the personnel.

Similarly, a large drone swarm could be flown into an airborne AEW&C or flight refueling aircraft (FRA). A drone swarm positioned on the approach and take-off path could stop all air operations. A similar one flown into the area of combat air patrol would divert the attention of the fighter crew from the primary task.

Drone swarms have a great role in countersurface force operations (CSFO), especially air interference or deep air support (DAS). Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have used drone swarms to locate and destroy Hamas rocket launchers and other targets under camouflage conditions and also in populated built-up areas.

Targets in army assembly areas, moving convoys of vehicles or tanks, and critical bridges make good drone swarm targets. They can be used against missile and artillery gun positions or even field headquarters locations.

Interdiction of high-priority targets such as command posts, communications equipment, and radars. A drone swarm can also cause huge damage to the structures, systems, and aircraft aboard a ship. A few drones in the swarm will be planned to help target acquisition in all forms of surface attacks. The swarm can do a multi-direction, multi-glide-angle coordinate strike. Swarms can strike launching sites of ballistic missiles.

Drone Swarm Defensive Operations

Drone swarms can act as fences around a Vital Area (VA) and Vital Point (VP). A drone swarm laden with small munitions can be made to hover in the general areas of ingress of adversary strikes.

They could do the role of IR flares and radar-deflecting chaffs. They could make great decoys to divert adversary air effort. A large mother drone in the swarm could carry air defense missiles. Onboard electro-optical drone jammers could collectively jam the attacking aircraft’s sensors and foil the attack. Drone swarms could take on an anti-drone or anti-swarm role.

Drone swarms
Drone swarms/Representational Image

Drone Swarms and Military Logistics

Drone swarms would have a great role in military logistics. They will be used as aerial convoys to deliver munitions and other sustenance supplies like food, water, and medical items to troops engaged in combat.

They will be able to move fast and to places not connected by roads. They will replace the mountain mules in high-altitude areas. Military formations in the Siachen glacier and other parts of the Himalayas can use them.

It will also cut the total tasks currently undertaken by transport aircraft and helicopters. This will also cut down supply drop losses.

Counters To Drone Swarms

Once airborne, the swarm may use satellite navigation like GPS. That could be detected and susceptible to jamming. However, the use of a combination of inertial navigation, ground imaging matching, and relative position in a swarm may reduce GPS usage and thus not be detected.

Intra-swarm communications between drones is a continuous process. These signals can be detected by using space-based or airborne SIGINT platforms and indicate the presence and location of a swarm. The swarm could then be attacked using electronic or cyber means.

There are many counter-UAS (C-UAS) measures and systems. Disrupting the drone’s RF signal could send it out of control. Finding and jamming the drone’s telemetry and ground video link. There are means to dazzle and blind the EO/IR drone payloads.

It is also possible to take control of such sensors through more powerful signal links. There are systems that can take control of them using cyber-attacks and land them in a safe, designated area. Once the control of the drone has been taken over, it can be diverted, or the swarm cohesion can be broken.

A captured drone can be analyzed to develop more counters.  There are also hard-kill options, such as sniper rifles and anti-drone drones. Kinetic measures could also include deploying nylon streamers or firing nets to clog the drone rotors. There are also counter-swarm swarms. Often, the soft and hard-kill options may be used in conjunction.

Some companies are working on Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) and High-Power Microwave (HPM) emitters for drone and drone-swarm counters. The EMP generator could be packed in a drone that flies into the swarm and explodes, destroying or disabling electronics in its proximity. Modern ground-based solid-state amplifiers can transmit significant directed energy against drone electronics.

This would work well even at longer ranges and simultaneously take on more swarms. Smaller podded variants could be flying in the air aboard drones for similar effects. The new Initial Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (IM-SHORAD) also combines directed energy elements to take on drones. C-UAS have to be more sophisticated than drones themselves.

Operational Costs & Flexibility Advantages

Drone swarms are going to be employed in large numbers due to significant advantages. Fractional low costs would allow affording much larger numbers vis-à-vis manned aircraft numbers. Numbers help overwhelm the adversary.

The absence of humans onboard allows the commanders to take higher risks and attempt more daring missions. With so many civil applications, the advantage of scale is bringing the cost down and allowing the mushrooming of innovative designs. Made up of a few modular components, the repair and replacements can be done in front-line field conditions.

Air Space Management In TBA

Since all the services will require harnessing the advantages of aerial drone swarms, a joint approach would bring higher dividends. There will also be a need for much greater inter-service coordination for employing drone swarms in operations in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA).

An autonomous drone swarm just requires a command and not control during the mission. Air space management will require a fresh approach.

Indigenous Drone Manufacturing Capability

The Bengaluru-based start-up NewSpace Research and Technologies is one of the leading companies. Among India’s top listed drone companies are Infoedge India, Zomato Ltd, Paras Defence & Space Technologies, Zen Technologies Limited, RattanIndia Enterprises, VEDA Aeronautics and DCM Sriram Industries.

The Indian drone industry already has 270 start-ups and is expected to be among the global leaders by 2030 with a Rs 50,000 crore ($6.2B) market.

Way Ahead

The era of drone swarms has just begun. Drone swarms are becoming a disrupting military capability, and even few getting through can have a lethal impact.

Drone swarms will start undertaking some aerial missions that, till now, were being performed by expensive manned fighter aircraft. The Drone swarm has the added advantage of combining the sensors, shooters, jammers, and communications relay in the same package. Swarm operating dynamic challenges would have to be dealt with.

Getting the right mix of the types and numbers of drones in the swarm will decide the overall operational capability. The composition could change for different missions. Some missions may require more electronic attack capability and other kinetic weapons. Retaining integrity is the most important task.

Complexities increase as the swarm enters the tactical area during operational missions. Offensive means and defenses of a swarm are continuously evolving. Simulation and war-gaming of drone swarms can fine-tune the capabilities.

Inexpensive normal commercial drones can be physically and electronically hardened and deployed as air power assets closer to the border. They can do close-air support, reconnaissance, and battlefield air interdiction tasks.

They will be very effective in anti-personnel roles, including in trenches and laying or clearing minefields. They will be great for airfield and helipad attacks, ammunition dumps, forward radar and communication antennae, and command and control nodes.

Drone swarms will be able to augment depleted fighter aircraft strength. An offensive drone swarm could pose serious challenges for defending high-value targets, as well as countering massed drone attacks.

India would also have to prepare defenses against drone swarms.  Indian armed forces will have to one day integrate laser weapon systems onto aircraft, ground vehicles, and ships.

The field commanders need to be educated on the capabilities and employability of swarms. They must understand how to dovetail them into their tactical operations along with other elements.

While swarming is already here, realistic global timelines for fully autonomous aerial platforms could be around five years from now and fully autonomous swarms only by 2035.

The sector requires investments in research and development. Drone swarms are both an asset and a threat. Is India Ready? For India, the time to act is now, lest it gets left behind.

  • Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years.
  • He tweets @Chopsyturvey 
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