Military warfare has witnessed significant advancements over the years, and one of the most striking developments is the emergence of killer drones and autonomous UAV swarms. These technologies are reshaping the landscape of military operations, offering new possibilities and challenges. In this article, we explore the concept of killer drones and autonomous UAV swarms, their implications for military warfare, and the ethical considerations surrounding their use.
One of the primary advantages of drones is their ability to provide situational awareness in real-time. They can provide soldiers witKiller Drones and Autonomous UAV Swarms : A New Era of Military Warfareh critical information about enemy movements, locations, and activities, which can help to avoid unnecessary casualties.
Growing employment of Drones in military Conflicts
The militaries have already integrated a large number of drones in their forces and employ them for deadly effects. In the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azeri drones proved decisive. Open-source intelligence indicates Azeri drones devastated the Armenian military, destroying 144 tanks, 35 infantry fighting vehicles, 19 armored personnel carriers, and 310 trucks.
In the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict, Russia has introduced several new UAVs, including variants of the Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone, Lancet-3 loitering munition, dedicated UAVs for Electronic Warfare (EW) and radio jamming like the Moskit, and new ground-based EW systems.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has prominently used civilian and leisure UAVs against Russian soldiers by retrofitting them with basic release mechanisms and dropping grenades on trenches and inside open hatches of tanks and armored vehicles. Dozens of popular videos show Russian soldiers being surprised when small bombs are modified with fins for stability and ensure they fall beside them.
Current drones like the MQ-9 Reaper are controlled remotely, with a pilot flying the aircraft and a payload operator aiming and launching missiles. A battery of other personnel, including military lawyers and image analysts, look over their shoulders and argue what is or is not a valid target. Future drones may have more autonomy, flying and fighting with much less human supervision, in particular when many of them work together as a swarm.
Understanding Killer Drones:
Killer drones, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), are unmanned aerial vehicles designed to autonomously identify and engage targets without direct human intervention. These drones are equipped with advanced sensors, artificial intelligence algorithms, and lethal payloads, enabling them to make decisions about target selection and engagement.
Autonomous UAV Swarms: A Force Multiplier:
Autonomous UAV swarms take the concept of killer drones a step further by leveraging the power of multiple drones operating in a coordinated manner. Autonomous swarms are groups of autonomous systems, or agents, that coordinate to achieve a common goal. These systems can be robots, drones, or other types of autonomous platforms, and they can be homogeneous or heterogeneous, meaning they all have the same capabilities or they have different capabilities, respectively.
These swarms exhibit collective intelligence and adaptive behaviors, making them formidable force multipliers. They can engage in synchronized attacks, perform reconnaissance missions, and overwhelm enemy defenses with their sheer numbers.
Advantages of Killer Drones and UAV Swarms:
Autonomous Swarms have many advantages. The coordination and cooperation between the systems in a swarm can lead to improved overall performance, as the strengths of each system can be utilized to achieve a common objective.
a. Precision and Accuracy: Killer drones and UAV swarms can precisely target specific enemy assets, minimizing collateral damage and reducing the risk to friendly forces.
b. Scalability and Flexibility: Swarms can easily scale their operations, adapting to different mission requirements and scenarios. Autonomous swarms can be easily scaled up or down in size, making them suitable for a wide range of applications, from small-scale tasks to large-scale operations.
c. Enhanced Situational Awareness: Advanced sensors and real-time data analysis provide comprehensive situational awareness, enabling better decision-making and response to evolving battlefield conditions.
d. Reduced Risk to Human Personnel: The use of killer drones and UAV swarms can potentially reduce the risk to human lives by minimizing the need for direct human involvement in dangerous combat situations.
They exhibit improved fault tolerance, as the failure of one system can be compensated for by other systems in the swarm.
Today’s swarms are mostly of same type of drones, in the future they will become more heterogeneous or employ drones of different sizes. Heterogeneous, autonomous swarms refer to a group of autonomous platforms that coordinate to achieve objectives, with each platform carrying a unique and distinct payload. The diversity of the payloads allows for the swarms to have a greater range of capabilities, making them suitable for complex tasks and environments.
Challenges in the development and deployment of autonomous swarms include the design of effective communication and coordination protocols, the development of algorithms for decentralized decision making, and the integration of diverse systems and platforms. Nevertheless, autonomous swarms have a wide range of potential applications, including environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and military operations.
The fact that components of the swarm can communicate with one another makes the swarm collaborate with each other and to achieve a greater objective than from just a group of individual drones. Communication allows the swarm to adjust behavior in response to real-time information. Researchers have created task allocation algorithms that allow the swarm to assign specific tasks to specific drones. Drones equipped with cameras and other environmental sensors (“sensor drones”) can identify potential targets, environmental hazards, or defenses and relay that information to the rest of the swarm. The swarm may then maneuver to avoid a hazard or defense, or allow the weapon-equipped drone (an “attack drone”) to strike the most vulnerable target or defense.
For in-depth understanding on Drone Swarms technology and applications please visit: Autonomous UAV Swarms: A Comprehensive Guide to Design, Deployment, Applications, and Ethics
Now militaries have turned to Drone swarms, which are multiple unmanned platforms and/or weapons deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behavior based on communication with one another.
Criminals and militants have now started using swarm of commercial available drones thereby engancing their effectiveness and lethality. Drones can be easily purchased at electronics stores or just built with duct tape and plywood as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria did. Drone swarms will likely be extremely useful for carrying out mass casualty attacks.
Drone swarms offer significant improvements to both nuclear offense, the ability to successfully deliver a warhead to a target, and defense, the ability to prevent successful delivery and mitigate consequences.
a. Offensive Operations: Killer drones and UAV swarms can be deployed for targeted strikes against enemy assets, including infrastructure, command centers, and high-value targets.
b. Defensive Measures: These technologies can enhance defensive capabilities by providing aerial surveillance, threat detection, and rapid response capabilities to protect critical installations and military assets.
c. Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR): Killer drones and UAV swarms can gather real-time intelligence, perform reconnaissance missions, and monitor enemy activities, contributing to better situational awareness for military commanders.
A 2018 United States military study found that this AI-enabled swarming capability made weapons significantly more powerful. In that simulation, 800 drones in a swarm were able to destroy more targets in two hours than 1,000 drones acting independently. “With all other capabilities being identical, the introduction of a swarm intelligent algorithm significantly increased the swarm’s efficiency, lethality, and capability,” the study’s author, Maj. Sean Williams wrote.
They may be useful as strategic deterrence weapons for states without nuclear weapons and as assassination weapons for terrorists. In fact, would-be assassins launched two drones against Prime Minister Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela in 2018. Although he escaped, the attack helps illustrate the potential of drone swarms. If the assassins launched 30 drones instead, the outcome may have been different.
Drone swarms are also likely to be highly effective delivery systems for chemical and biological weapons through integrated environmental sensors and mixed arms tactics (e.g. combining conventional and chemical weapons in a single swarm),
The first massive drone attack took place in Sysria when Russian Ministry of Defence claimed its forces were attacked by a swarm of home-made drones – the first time such a coordinated assault has been reported in a military action. According to the Ministry of Defence, Russian forces at the Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility “successfully warded off a terrorist attack with massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” last Friday night.
Low-cost, intelligent and inspired by swarms of insects, these new machines could revolutionise future conflicts. In either case, the biggest advantage of a ‘swarm’ is the ability of machines to work together in numbers. Swarms can find, fix, and communicate precise target location of ground, sea, and air targets; they can serve as weapons platforms to attack air defense systems from multiple axes; or they can pass missile targeting data to any platform carrying a counter air missile.
For example, swarming drones might enable more effective CBRN delivery. Or they might facilitate standoff detection, search the oceans for nuclear-armed submarines, or otherwise impede an adversary’s ability to threaten or employ CBRN weapons. Conventionally armed drone swarms might serve as strategic deterrents in lieu of CBRN weapons.
“Swarming allows you to build large numbers of low-cost expendable agents that can be used to overwhelm an adversary,” says Paul Scharre from the Center for a New American Security think tank. . “This reverses the long trend of rising aircraft costs and reducing quantities. Flinging a barrage at a defence system is one thing, but that could be done with a sack of rocks. The key to the swarm is that it’s smart enough to coordinate its own behaviour.
Swarms are expected to be effective even in A2/AD environments. “You have maybe a hundred or a thousand surface-to-air missiles, but we’re going to hit you with ten thousand [small UAVS]”, Colonel Travis Burdine, said the US Air Force’s division chief for unmanned aircraft. Defenders would either exhaust their stocks of missiles against cheap, numerous UAVs, or allow themselves to be overrun and destroyed. Swarms of Gremlins, Perdix and similar systems could potentially clear the way for manned aircraft to operate safely without opposition. Any military with this capability is likely to gain air supremacy and win a decisive advantage. Swarms may also be highly effective against battlefield targets at much lower cost than traditional precision-guided munitions.
From swarming enemy sensors with a deluge of targets, to spreading out over large areas for search-and-rescue missions, they could have a range of uses on and off the battlefield.
Swarms come in different shapes and sizes. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, has been working on a programme dubbed Gremlins; micro-drones the size and shape of missiles, designed to be dropped from planes and perform reconnaissance over vast areas.
Militaries race to deploy Drone swarms
The US Naval Postgraduate School is also exploring the potential for swarms of one million drones operating at sea, under sea, and in the air. To hit Nagasaki levels of potential harm, a drone swarm would only need 39,000 armed drones, and perhaps fewer if the drones had explosives capable of harming multiple people. That might seem like a lot, but China already holds a Guinness World Record for flying 3,051 pre-programmed drones at once.
The U.S. and Israel are not the only players in this field. Turkey has already fielded Kargu tactical kamikaze drones in small numbers on the Syrian border. Currently, these are piloted remotely, but the makers claim the Kargu has the autonomous swarming capability. China and Russia are not so far behind.
China has developed a low-cost “suicide drone” as part of its military-civilian fusion strategy, which aims to enhance military development with civilian and private sector support. The state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation conducted tests where drones were released from truck-based, 48-unit launchers. Similar technology was demonstrated in 2020, with reports stating that the system could launch up to 200 drones at once, releasing them quickly and simultaneously while in motion.
In India’s recent Army Day Parade, the government showcased a drone swarm consisting of 75 drones and expressed the intention to scale the swarm to over 1,000 units. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) showcased its armed swarm drone technology at an event in Jhansi, demonstrating a fully operational decentralized swarm of 25 drones flying with minimal human intervention. This capability demonstration took place during a three-day defense function in Jhansi, held as part of the ongoing nationwide celebrations for the country’s 75th year of Independence.
These developments highlight efforts in advancing swarm drone technology for military purposes. The focus on swarm technologies aims to enhance military capabilities, improve operational effectiveness, and adapt to evolving defense needs. As these countries continue to invest in swarm drone technology, considerations regarding international regulations, ethical implications, and global security will be crucial.
IDF deployed drone swarms in Gaza fighting
During the 11-day conflict between Israel and terror groups in Gaza in May 2021, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deployed drone swarms to spot and attack rocket launch sites. This marked one of the first significant real-world uses of drone swarms in combat.
The IDF faced challenges in preventing rocket launches from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Over 4,000 projectiles were fired from Gaza, causing casualties and forcing Israelis into bomb shelters for nearly two weeks.
In this conflict, the IDF used artificial intelligence-enabled drone swarms. Small groups of quadcopter drones were deployed over the southern Gaza Strip, with each drone monitoring a specific area. They collected precise intelligence and assisted other drones in targeting and attacking the launch sites. When a rocket or mortar launch was detected, other armed aircraft or ground-based units would engage and neutralize the source of fire.
The drone swarms were used extensively by a classified company of the Paratroopers Brigade, based on concepts developed by the IDF’s experimental Ghost Unit. This unit is responsible for testing and creating new tactics and fighting styles for the military.
The deployment of drone swarms in the Gaza conflict demonstrated their effectiveness in providing intelligence, surveillance, and targeted attacks against hostile forces. This use of drone swarms showcased their potential for enhancing military capabilities and protecting civilian populations in conflict zones.
US Drone Swarms
The U.S. has been actively researching and testing various drone swarm technologies. Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory conducted tests using a fleet of 30 miniature autonomous blimps that demonstrated swarming behavior and responsiveness to changing conditions. The goal is to fly over 100 controlled miniature blimps in the near future, exploring potential defensive and offensive uses for swarms of autonomous systems.
The larger XQ-58 Valkyrie drone, measuring nearly 9 meters in length, has been developed as a “loyal wingman” for human pilots, capable of carrying precision-guided bombs and surveillance equipment. It aims to work alongside manned fighter jets in a collaborative manner.
DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program focuses on integrating swarm tactics and leveraging emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming. The program aims to utilize swarms of 250 unmanned aircraft systems or small unmanned ground systems for various missions in complex urban environments.
The U.S. military successfully launched one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms, consisting of 103 Perdix drones launched from F/A-18 Super Hornets. The demonstration showcased advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing. This represents a shift towards utilizing small, inexpensive, and autonomous systems for missions that were traditionally carried out by larger, more expensive platforms.
The U.S. Navy’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology project also focused on swarm software capabilities. Raytheon’s Coyote drones demonstrated the ability to fly as a swarm, responding in unison to commands and operating autonomously based on pre-programmed instructions while avoiding collisions.
These various initiatives highlight the U.S.’s ongoing efforts to advance swarm technology and explore the potential applications of autonomous drone swarms in military operations. The development of swarm capabilities aims to enhance mission effectiveness, decision-making speed, and adaptability in complex and dynamic environments.
Army to Conduct Largest Ever Drone Swarm Experiments reported in April 2022
The U.S. Army is set to conduct its largest-ever drone swarm experiments during the 2022 Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise (EDGE 2022). More than 50 technologies will be previewed during the event, with the highlight being the deployment of the largest interactive drone swarm to date.
The drone swarm will showcase various behaviors, including the detection and identification of pacing threats and the ability to operate in degraded visual environments. The drones will also test their autonomous reporting capabilities in communication-denied or GPS-denied environments. The objective of the experiment is to identify the advantages that swarms can have over those used by adversaries.
The Army, in collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), will also evaluate the drones’ effectiveness in engaging and eliminating targets, as well as assessing battle damage. The exercise will explore the potential of swarming for combat attacks. While a manned platform may lead the swarm, the Army is investigating the possibility of a drone taking control of the swarm if it goes out of range in denied or degraded environments.
EDGE 2022 demonstrates the Army’s commitment to advancing swarm technology and exploring its capabilities in a combat setting. The experiments aim to optimize swarm behaviors, enhance autonomous reporting, and determine the effectiveness of swarming for military operations.
Chinese Drone Swarms
Chinese researchers and companies have made significant advancements in drone swarm technology. Chinese drone swarms have evolved into offensive capabilities, carrying explosives or loitering munitions. The Armed, Fully-Autonomous Drone Swarm (AFADS) is a type of swarm that can locate, identify, and attack targets without human intervention, leading experts to consider it a potential weapon of mass destruction. This type of swarm gained attention through the viral video “Slaughterbots,” highlighting concerns about autonomous weapons.
China has conducted tests involving swarms of loitering munitions, also known as suicide drones, deployed from various platforms such as tubular launchers on light tactical vehicles and helicopters. Chinese research institutions, including the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) and the China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology (CAEIT), have conducted experiments with large numbers of fixed-wing drones, showcasing swarm behavior and the ability to carry out coordinated missions.
Zhuhai Ziyan UAV company, based in Guangdong, has developed helicopter drones capable of forming intelligent swarms and launching coordinated attacks. These drones can autonomously form up into a swarm, with up to 10 unmanned helicopters working together. Each drone can have different capabilities, such as dropping explosive mortar shells, carrying grenade launchers, or even executing suicide attacks. The swarm can be controlled remotely, with the ability to avoid collisions, find designated targets, and engage them autonomously.
These developments demonstrate China’s significant progress in drone swarm technology, with applications ranging from reconnaissance missions to offensive operations. The ability to deploy coordinated drone swarms autonomously presents challenges for military forces worldwide and raises important considerations regarding the ethics and regulation of autonomous weapons systems.
Indian Army gets its first set of offensive swarm drone system
The Indian Army has taken delivery of its first heterogeneous swarm Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) system, enhancing its offensive capabilities on the battlefield. Equipped with advanced technologies and controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) software, the swarm drone system allows multiple drones to be operated from a single station. These drones are pre-programmed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks, providing an edge in meeting future security challenges.
The Indian Army has signed contracts with Indian start-ups NewSpace Research and Tech and Raphe for swarm drones. Additionally, it has ordered over 100 tactical Indo-Israel kamikaze drones to bolster operational capabilities along the borders with Pakistan and China.
The Indian Army showcased its drone swarming capability during the Army Day 2021 parade, featuring 75 locally designed and developed drones executing AI-enabled offensive missions and close support tasks. These quadcopter drones can perform various missions, including strikes against tanks, combat vehicles, ammunition areas, and terror launch pads. They can also deliver medical aids and essential supplies to support troops in challenging and forward positions.
The Indian Navy has also placed orders for specialized drones, and the Indian Air Force has signed a deal with Zen Technologies for counter-unmanned aerial systems. The Indian government has accelerated plans to develop an air-launched swarm drone system designed to target enemy defense systems, involving startups, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR).
Under the Combat Air Teaming Systems (CATS) project, manned Jaguar land attack aircraft will be equipped to launch up to 24 killer drones, each capable of engaging individual enemy targets. The project, expected to be executed in four years, aims to develop AI capabilities for target acquisition and is estimated to cost around Rs 1,000 crore.
The Indian armed forces are also focusing on loitering munitions, which have the potential to change the dynamics of warfare. These munitions come in various types, suited for both long-range and tactical operations, further enhancing India’s military capabilities.
The Republic of Korea has recently announced a ‘Dronebot’ combat unit which will focus on small, swarming UAVs, initially for reconnaissance but potentially also for large-scale attack as a means of neutralizing DPRK missile launchers and other targets. In Israel, the military research and development organization MAFAT is working on swarming software to allow large number of drones to be controlled by a single operator. This technology is expected to be fielded in the next two years. Turkey is also adding swarming capability to its Alpgau-2 small loitering munitions.
In Feb 2019, UK defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, made a speech in which he called for “swarm squadrons” of drones “capable of confusing the enemy and overwhelming their air defences”. He also said that the first practical trials would be taking place by the end of this year (2019). Money for the drone swarm project comes from the Defence Innovation Fund, he added.
Military Drones market
The global military drones market is expected to grow from $12.85 billion in 2020 to $14.61 billion in 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.7%. The market is expected to reach $32.14 billion in 2025 at a CAGR of 22%.
The military drones market consists of sales of military drones and related services. The military drones are specifically used for military purposes such as border surveillance, battle damage management, combat operations, communication, delivery, and anti-terrorism weaponry. Military drones include tactical drones, MALE (Medium altitude, long endurance) drones, HALE (High altitude, long endurance) drones, TUAV (Tactical unmanned air vehicle) drones, UCAV (Unmanned combat air vehicle) drones, SUAV (Small unmanned air vehicle) drones, and others.
Increasing government funding on military drones to enhance efficiency in military operations boosts the demand for the production of military drones. According to the 2018 report published by the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone, in 2019, the U.S. Navy funding for unmanned systems increased by $1 billion (38%) and the U.S Army funding increased by $719 million (73%), when compared to 2018. Furthermore, the Department of Defense in the US requested approximately $9.39 billion for drones and associated technologies in the fiscal year 2019, representing a significant expansion of 26% in drone spending over the 2018 budget, which was $7.5 billion. Hence, the increasing government spending on unmanned drones is driving the military drones market.
The production and delivery are the two factors likely to limit the development of military drone’s market during 2020. The COVID19 outbreak impacted the supply chains for various industries including the auto industry, electronics industry, food industry, pharma industry, and defense industry across the globe. Many manufacturing plants are operating at minimal capacities or have shut down their operations completely.
Drone swarm technology is growing its popularity in the military drones market due to its cost efficiency and high fire-power. Drone swarms are a large group of small drones that coordinate with each other to perform actions such as a survey of enemy territories, search and rescue and attacks on hostile objects. Drone swarm technology involves the production of several small cheap drones than one large expensive drone, therefore offering military drone manufacturers and end-users efficiency in terms of cost and time. With the use of advanced swarm technologies, military and armed forces can effectively carry out lethal drone strikes in multiple places at once.
For instance, Microsystems developed a drone swarming system called the WOLF-PAK in 2017 which has the capability to fly small drones in groups and make them split away from the group whenever necessary. In 2019, the U.S Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the U.S Air Force Research Lab are investing on a project called Gremlins involving multiple controlled micro-drones that drop out of cargo planes to swarm enemy defenses.
Key market players are Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, AeroVironment, General Atomics, Textron, Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, Thales, China Aerospace Science And Technology Corporation, Aeronautics, BAE Systems, Ball Corporation, Airbus, IAI, AVIC, CASC, Raytheon, Saab, Leonardo S.P.A, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Orbital ATK Inc., Planet Labs Inc., VTOL Technologies
Ethical Considerations and Challenges:
a. Accountability and Legal Frameworks: The use of killer drones and UAV swarms raises questions about accountability for their actions and the establishment of legal frameworks to govern their deployment and operation.
b. Discrimination and Proportionality: Ensuring these technologies are used in a manner that discriminates between combatants and civilians, and adheres to principles of proportionality, is critical to avoiding unnecessary harm.
c. Autonomy and Human Oversight: Striking the right balance between autonomous decision-making and human oversight is crucial to prevent unintended consequences or ethical violations.
d. Psychological and Strategic Implications: The psychological impact of killer drones and UAV swarms on the enemy, as well as the potential for strategic instability, must be carefully considered.
Killer drones and autonomous UAV swarms represent a new era of military warfare, offering unique capabilities and challenges. While these technologies provide advantages such as precision, scalability, and reduced risk to human personnel, they also raise important ethical considerations. Striking a balance between the effective use of these technologies and ensuring adherence to international laws and ethical principles will be paramount. As we navigate this new era, robust discussions and international cooperation are essential to shape the future of military warfare and mitigate potential risks associated with killer drones and autonomous UAV swarms.
References and resources also include