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Military drones (UAV) swarms transforming from ISR capabilities and military force protection roles to killer drones and loitering munitions

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.


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.


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.



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. Today’s swarms are mostly of same type of drones, in the future they will become more heterogeneous or employ drones of different sizes.


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.


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.


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.


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),


Military applications of Swarms

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.


In India’s recent Army Day Parade, the government demonstrated what it claimed is a true drone swarm of 75 drones and expressed the intent to scale the swarm to more than 1,000 units. DRDO showcased the latest armed swarm drone technology at an event in Jhansi in Dec 2021.


DRDO’s Young Scientist Laboratory for Asymmetric Technologies is working on swarm technologies to strengthen the country’s military capabilities, the DRDO said in a statement. “DRDO demonstrated a fully operational decentralised swarm of 25 drones flying with minimal human intervention,” it said. The capability demonstration came on the opening day of a three-day defence function in Jhansi linked to the ongoing countrywide celebrations to mark the 75th year of Independence.


IDF deployed drone swarms in Gaza fighting

In May 2021, during the 11-day conflict between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, when the Israel Defense Forces used flocks of drones over the Strip to spot rocket launches by Hamas and attack those sites in what appears to be one of the first significant, publicly acknowledged real-world use of the concept.


During the fighting, the IDF struggled to prevent the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups from launching rockets and mortar shells into Israel. By the end of the conflict, over 4,000 projectiles were fired from the Gaza Strip, killing several people in Israel, injuring scores more and regularly sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis to bomb shelters for nearly two weeks.


In one use of artificial intelligence-enabled drone swarms, the Israeli military deployed small flocks of quadcopter drones over the southern Gaza Strip with each device monitoring a specific patch of land, The Times of Israel learned at the time.  They collected precise intelligence and assisted other drones to carry out attacks on the targets. When a rocket or mortar launch was detected, other armed aircraft or ground-based units attacked the source of the fire. Israel drone swarms were used dozens of times during the fighting by an until-now classified company of the Paratroopers Brigade, based on concepts developed by the IDF’s experimental Ghost Unit, which is tasked with trying out and creating new tactics and fighting styles for the military.


US Drone Swarms

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory flew a fleet of 30 miniature autonomous blimps in unison to test the swarming behavior of autonomous systems. The blimps responded to each other while in flight and responded to changing conditions. Don Sofge, lead for the distributed autonomous systems group at NRL, and his team are working to further research for autonomous super swarms. Their goal is to fly more than 100 controlled miniature blimps this year. One of the goals for Sofge’s research is to understand the potential uses for swarms of autonomous systems—both defensive and offensive. Some desired emergent behaviors include protecting an asset, providing area coverage, conducting reconnaissance missions, or simply moving in formation from one location to another.


On the other side of the spectrum is the larger XQ-58 Valkyrie drone, measuring almost 9m in length. It has been called a ‘loyal wingman’ for a human pilot – able to carry precision-guided bombs and surveillance equipment. It recently completed its first successful test flight, although the eventual aim is for it to work in a group alongside a manned fighter jet.


DARPA launched its new OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program in December 2016 with the goal of getting small-forces infantry to use “swarms of 250 unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) or small unmanned ground systems (UGSs) or more to accomplish diverse missions in complex urban environments.” DARPA’s OFFSET program seeks to advance the integration of modern swarm tactics and leverage emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming. Cognitive autonomy has the potential to transform all defense and security systems,” explains Vern Boyle, vice president, advanced technologies, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. “OFFSET will explore a variety of applications in relevant mission scenarios.” “We are applying cutting-edge technologies in robotics, robot autonomy, machine learning and swarm control to ultimately enhance our contributions to the warfighter.”


The US has also been testing interconnected, co-operative drones that are capable of working together to overwhelm adversaries. The United States military successfully launched what it’s calling “one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms” in October. The Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command, successfully demonstration consisted of 103 Perdix drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets. The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.


The demonstration is one of the first examples of the Pentagon using teams of small, inexpensive, autonomous systems to perform missions once achieved only by large, expensive ones. Roper stressed the department’s conception of the future battle network is one where humans will always be in the loop. Machines and the autonomous systems being developed by the DoD, such as the micro-drones, will empower humans to make better decisions faster.As SCO works with the military Services to transition Perdix into existing programs of record, it is also partnering with the Defense Industrial Unit-Experimental, or DIUx, to find companies capable of accurately replicating Perdix using the MIT Lincoln Laboratory design. Its goal is to produce Perdix at scale in batches of up to 1,000.


“Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said SCO Director William Roper. “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

Another demonstration was US Navy’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology project, which used Raytheon’s Coyote, another small fixed-wing drone. Both of these efforts focused as much on the software, which allowed the swarms to respond in unison to commands and operate autonomously based on pre-programmed instructions, all while avoiding running into each other, as the hardware itself. Raytheon’s small, tube-launched Coyote® UAS,has its own special software that enables several of them to fly as a swarm. Raytheon demonstrated this ability for the Office of Naval Research in a Low-Cost UAV Swarm Technology, or LOCUST, exercise a few years ago — and how did the Coyotes


U.S. Army has been working on a Cluster UAS Smart Munition for Missile Deployment which looks like a real-world embodiment of AFADS. The Cluster Swarm project is developing a missile warhead to dispense a swarm of small drones that fan out to locate and destroy vehicles with explosively formed penetrators or EFPs. (An EFP spits a high-speed slug of armor-piercing metal some tens or hundreds of meters). This is similar in concept to the existing CBU-105 bomb, a 1000-pound munition which scatters forty ‘Skeet’ submunitions each over the target area, each of which parachutes down, scanning the ground with a seeker until it finds a tank and fires an EFP at it; the picture above shows one test. CBU-105’s dropped by B-52 bombers successfully knocked out entire Iraqi tank columns in 2003, leading them to be termed ‘Cans of whup-ass.’ The Cluster Swarm would be vastly more powerful.


The Cluster Swarm involved drones packed into the Army’s existing GMLRS rockets, which carry a 180-pound payload and have a range of over 70 kilometers, or ATACMS missiles that carry a 350-pound payload over 270 kilometers. The original idea was that the missile payload would be quadcopter drones encased in an aerodynamic shell that would disperse them over the target area. However, the challenges of unfolding quadcopters mid-air may have been too great, as the Phase II development, recently completed, went to AVID LLC, who have a slightly different approach.


The Cluster Swarm would be far more powerful than the existing CBU-105 ‘cans of whup-ass’ for two reasons. A CBU-105 can only hit targets in an area a few hundred meters across. The Cluster Swarm can go hunting for vehicles dispersed over many square miles. The other advantage is efficiency. CBU-105 gives little overlap in search area for each warhead; many will not have a target, and where there is overlap two or more may attack the same tank and ignore others. A true swarm acting co-operatively will ‘de-conflict’ so forty drones always attack forty different targets.


Army to Conduct Largest Ever Drone Swarm Experiments reported in April 2022

The 2022 Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise — also known as EDGE 2022 — will include the “largest interactive drone swarm to date,” said Gen. Walter Rugen, the director of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross-functional team at the Aviation Association of America summit. The Army will preview more than 50 technologies during the May event.


The drones will perform behaviors such as detect and identify “pacing threats” and observe when the swarm has entered a degraded visual environment. Rugen noted the drones will test their ability to autonomously report outside of communications-denied or GPS-denied environments. The experiment will look at what swarms need to do to have an advantage over swarms used by adversaries, Rugen said during a media roundtable at the summit.


The Army — now working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on swarm technology — will also test the drones’ ability to kill targets and assess battle damage, he said. During EDGE, the service will weigh how it can use swarming for attacks in combat. The lead in the swarm could be a manned platform, but the service is exploring how a drone could take control of the swarm if is out of range in denied or degraded environments, he explained.


Chinese Drone Swarms

In December 2017, researchers from the Chinese state National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), more formally known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) National University of Defense Science and Technology, conducted an experiment involving approximately two dozen of small fixed wing unmanned aircraft. An official PLA publication said that the test consisted of the entire group of drones acting as a swarm to complete a simulated reconnaissance mission, according to the East Pendulum blog. The individual aircraft operated together as a single entity and performed certain, unspecified portions of the flight autonomously.


Now the swarm of drones are being employed as offensive swarms carrying explosives or loitering munitions which have been termed as weapon of mass destruction by some experts. Kallenborn, an expert in unmanned systems and WMD, describes one type of swarm that he calls an Armed, Fully-Autonomous Drone Swarm, or AFADS. Once unleashed an AFADS will locate, identify, and attack targets without human intervention. Kallenborn argues that an AFADS-type swarm is a genuine Weapon of Mass Destruction because of the amount of harm it can do and because of its inability to distinguish civilians from military targets. This is the type of swarm in the fictional 2017 viral video Slaughterbots released as a warning against autonomous weapons.


In Sep 2020, China  conducted a test involving a swarm of loitering munitions, also often referred to as suicide drones, deployed from a box-like array of tubular launchers on a light tactical vehicle and from helicopters. This underscores how the drone swarm threat, broadly, is becoming ever-more real and will present increasingly serious challenges for military forces around the world in future conflicts. The China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology (CAEIT) reportedly carried out the test in September.

Earlier, June 2017, the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, or CETC, conducted its own record-breaking swarm experiment with nearly 120 unmanned fixed wing aircraft, as well. This event included simulated missions where the entire formation acted as a whole and instances where smaller groups broke away to complete separate objectives. Four months later, CAEIT conducted its own larger experiment with 200 fixed-wing drones. Chinese companies have also demonstrated impressive swarms using quad-copter-type drones for large public displays.


Guangdong-based Zhuhai Ziyan UAV company, have developed Helicopter drones  capable of forming an intelligent swarm and launch coordinated attacks. The intelligent swarming attack technology enables as many as 10 unmanned helicopter drones to autonomously form up into a swarm. The 10 drones can be a combination of different types, including those that can drop proximity explosive mortar shells, while others can carry grenade launchers, or make suicide attacks, Liu Liyuan, a spokesperson of the company, told the Global Times.


With a single push of a button, the drones can autonomously take off, avoiding colliding in the air and finding their way to their designated target. Once they receive an order to attack, they will engage the target autonomously in a coordinated manner. Upon finishing a mission, the system will lead the drones back to base and land automatically. The operator does not need to expose himself or herself in a dangerous frontline as the drones can easily be controlled remotely, the company said.

Indian Army demands drone swarming

Indian Army, which has signed three separate deals for various types of drones., in Sep 2020, that includes two deals worth over Rs 200 crore for Swarm drones with Indian start ups — Bengaluru-based NewSpace Research and Tech, run by former IAF officer Sameer Joshi, and Noida-based firm Raphe, sources said. Both firms are Indian and not joint ventures with a foreign player. The Army has also ordered over 100 tactical Indo-Israel kamikaze drones, used in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, to beef up its operational capability along the borders with Pakistan and China.


The Indian Army earlier demonstrated its new drone swarming capability at the Army Day 2021 parade in Delhi Cantt with 75 locally designed and developed drones hovering in the sky and simulating a raft of missions including offensive operations. “The drones executed an array of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled simulated offensive missions and close support tasks during the parade,” the army said in a statement. Drones within a swarm can carry out a wide range of missions including strikes against tanks, infantry combat vehicles, ammunition holding areas, fuel dumps and terror launch pads, officials said.


“This demonstration is a recognition of the Indian Army’s steady embrace of emerging and disruptive technologies to transform itself from a manpower- intensive to a technology-enabled force to meet future security challenges,” army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said. “In a kamikaze mission, the drones can strike at a range of 100km,” the officials added.


The army’s drone swarming capability is under development, though it has been tested for HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) roles, which are largely dropping medicines and essential items. The technology is being developed by the army in partnership with a Bengaluru-based start-up NewSpace Research and Technologies.


The quadcopter drones, capable of carrying multiple weights of payload, were shown delivering medical aids and para-dropping essential supplies to showcase that the system can be used to support troops deployed in harsh and forward positions. The Army had then announced that a total of 600 kg supplies can be delivered by these drones. The plan right now, according to sources, is to bring out more complex and upgraded versions in the future, which could then be part of a larger procurement process.


The Navy has also placed a large order with an Indian joint venture firm for specialised drones, the sources said. The force had also placed an order with defence PSU Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) for the supply of Naval Anti Drone System (NADS), developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The Indian Air Force, which is looking at larger tactical drones, has signed up a deal with Indian firm Zen Technologies for counter unmanned aerial systems.


Indian Government has accelerated the plans to develop an air-launched swarm drone system designed to attack enemy’s advanced defence systems of the kind deployed by China across the LAC in Ladakh, reports. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is already on board the project, and it also involves at least two startups and the state-owned aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The project also involves the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) which will help build the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities for target acquisition.


Once developed, it would likely to involve a manned Jaguar land attack aircraft which would be capable of launching up to 24 killer drones which would then take down the individual enemy targets. Each Jaguar aircraft will be equipped with four pods which will each contain six killer drones. It is being developed under the Combat Air Teaming Systems (CATS) project and is likely to be executed in four years. It is likely to cost the exchequer Rs 1,000 crore.


Each of the three Services is also focusing on loitering munition which changes the warfare dynamics. These loitering munitions are of different types – both for long range and tactical operations.


Other Countries

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




References and resources also include


Cite This Article

International Defense Security & Technology (December 1, 2022) Military drones (UAV) swarms transforming from ISR capabilities and military force protection roles to killer drones and loitering munitions. Retrieved from
"Military drones (UAV) swarms transforming from ISR capabilities and military force protection roles to killer drones and loitering munitions." International Defense Security & Technology - December 1, 2022,
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"Military drones (UAV) swarms transforming from ISR capabilities and military force protection roles to killer drones and loitering munitions." International Defense Security & Technology [Online]. Available: [Accessed: December 1, 2022]

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