How a large swarm of drones could fundamentally change the future of war

  • A small group of nations are developing plans to deploy drone strikes in war.

  • The drones could be used to achieve air defenses, or for mass attacks.

  • Some experts want the technology to be restricted.

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

Thousands of drones operating in a coordinated “swarm” could be deployed across China, relaying targeting information to US heavy weapons.

The situation was illustrated in a document recently released by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank.

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

While the scenario is speculative, and far from official US military doctrine, it is a glimpse into a plausible future, and one other country is also considering it.

In China, Israel and Europe, military experts are devising plans for drones that could change the nature of the conflict.

Drone drones use cutting-edge technology that comes from studying flocks of birds and schools of fish to coordinate their movements over a potentially large area.

They could enable militaries not only to surveil the enemy but to use them as weapons to launch massive coordinated bombing attacks. But work remains to be done to identify their most effective use.

“Drone drones 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 the principal researcher at Looking Glass USA, an anti-drone consultancy, and is also affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s not exactly clear which mission drone knives are best suited to, but their potential is huge,” he said. “The challenge is to separate where drone fibers really matter from where they’re mostly sci-fi stuff.”

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

Supercharged drone combat in Ukraine

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

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

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

“Everyone in the Western military establishment is eager to understand and digest the insights that come out of the war in Ukraine,” said David Ochmanek, an analyst at the RAND Corporation.

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

Until recently, some military experts argued that drones were too easy to drop, and that they would likely only be used in wars between poorer nations without the resources to fight them.

But the lesson from Ukraine, according to Ochmanek, is that drones will be part of conflicts involving even the most powerful nations – on an even larger scale in Ukraine.

Instead of deploying individual drones, each controlled by a single human operator, as is the case in Ukraine, the US could operate a vast array of drones independently.

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

“We need 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. ,” Ochmanek said.

China seeks to neutralize US war plans

For years, a problem has plagued US military planners.

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

The US deployed the tactics to devastating effect against Iraq in both 1991 and 2003. The United States destroyed Iraqi air defenses within hours, giving it control of the battlefield and air space.

China, which was rapidly gaining economic and military strength, was watching, urgently upgrading its military and refining its tactics.

​​​​​​It found ways to move or hide its air defense systems and other potential targets, making them difficult for the US to find and potentially destroy, Ochmanek said. It also developed technology to protect military positions and other key sites from satellites by “illuminating” them, US military analysts say.

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

Drone swarms have key advantages in identifying targets in the early hours of conflict.

They can be deployed to such an extent that they defeat air defense systems. Once there, they can relay live data to human operators who would use it to guide precision missile attacks.

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

“We think the Swarm Drone is a strong way to do what we need to do to get the information we need so that the limited lethality we can generate in those open hours and days of war can be effectively applied and effectively,” said Ochmanek.

Killer robots

But critics are warning that the drone knives could have a disastrous landing.

Under the drone swarm plans proposed by military experts, the machines rely on humans as decision makers before any actual attacks are carried out. The drones only provide information.

It wouldn’t be a huge technological leap to empower the drones to make those decisions themselves as well.

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

At the United Nations last year, several countries called for restrictions on the development and use of autonomous drones that could make life and death decisions.

Both the US and China have opposed that plan, arguing that current restrictions on the use of any weapons to indiscriminately target civilians are enough to prevent future deadly robots.

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

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

“Autonomous, armed drone swarms should have restrictions on their use, especially drone champions that target people. We know that autonomous weapons are prone to mistakes; drone swarm scales with a thousand risks ,” Kallenborn said.

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

Ochmanek emphasized that humans should still focus on decisions regarding drone shooting, and only AI should synthesize the data.

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

Resisting the knives

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

Research is underway into how to achieve them with lasers or microwaves, although both approaches have their own drawbacks.

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

So far, he said, no magic bullet has been found to combat the sharks. And despite their fears for their independence, they seem ready to play a central role in future wars.

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