In recent years, the field of swarm robotics has witnessed remarkable advancements, opening up new possibilities for addressing complex challenges. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been at the forefront of these efforts, leading the way in developing innovative technologies to enhance military capabilities. One such initiative is the Autonomous Mission Assurance for Swarms (AMASS) program, which aims to empower command and control of swarms-of-swarms to tackle potential threats in the modern warfare landscape. In this article, we delve into DARPA’s AMASS initiative and its implications for future defense strategies.
China’s A2/AD threat
Beijing has stepped up aggressive military pressure tactics on the island, sending fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the body of water separating Taiwan and China and into the island’s air defense identification zone – a buffer of airspace commonly referred to as an ADIZ.
And speaking about Taiwan at the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2022, Chinese leader Xi Jinping won large applause when he said China would “strive for peaceful reunification” — but then gave a grim warning, saying “we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
When it comes to Taiwan, the United States’ goal is to ensure Beijing understands an invasion is “never easy to do rapidly or cost-free,” according to the senior Pentagon official for the Indo-Pacific. Ely Ratner, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, added, “what we are trying to do [is] ensure when Beijing looks at the problem, [it decides] today is not the day.” It would be “a really bad idea” for Beijing to pursue 2027 as the year for military action to bring the self-governing island under its control, he said.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2026 would result in thousands of casualties among Chinese, United States, Taiwanese and Japanese forces, and it would be unlikely to result in a victory for Beijing, according to a prominent independent Washington think tank, which conducted war game simulations of a possible conflict that is preoccupying military and political leaders in Asia and Washington.
A war over Taiwan could leave a victorious US military in as crippled a state as the Chinese forces it defeated. At the end of the conflict, at least two US aircraft carriers would lie at the bottom of the Pacific and China’s modern navy, which is the largest in the world, would be in “shambles.”
Those are among the conclusions the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), made after running what it claims is one of the most extensive war-game simulations ever conducted on a possible conflict over Taiwan, the democratically ruled island of 24 million that the Chinese Communist Party claims as part of its sovereign territory despite never having controlled it.
Today, our peer-state adversaries could invade their neighbors with little warning given their
time-distance-mass advantage. Adversary A2/AD bubbles with sophisticated air defense, indirect
fires, precision weapons, and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities
would severely limit Joint Service and Coalition operations under the bubble, sad DARPA.
Engaging high valued targets from outside the bubble poses its own challenges. Long-range precision-guided weapons are limited in number, expensive, and require detailed targeting information. Subsurface operations would be possible in a maritime environment, but submarines would certainly be put at risk.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) would offer an alternative to manned platforms entering the A2/AD environment, but current unmanned platforms require frequent or constant communications, which may not be possible in real-world scenarios.
DARPA’s Thrust on Swarms to Defeat A2/AD
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.
For the past six years, the DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics Program (OFFSET) has been perfecting the ability for up to 250 autonomous aerial and land-based drones to collectively descend upon urban environments to assist Army ground forces.
The Services and Coalition partners are making significant investments in artificial intelligence and autonomy to enable UAV, USV, and UGV platforms to function independently in A2/AD environments, but have yet to achieve the large-scale, dynamic autonomy necessary to be effective against a peerstate adversary’s A2/AD capabilities.
The Power of Swarms-of-Swarms:
Swarms-of-swarms refer to interconnected networks of autonomous swarm systems working in collaboration to achieve shared objectives. Unlike traditional single-swarm systems, swarms-of-swarms offer enhanced scalability, versatility, and resilience. By leveraging the collective intelligence and collaborative behaviors of multiple swarms, these systems exhibit unprecedented capabilities that can be harnessed for various applications.
For deeper understanding on Swarm of Swarms tehnology and applicatons please visit: Swarm of Swarms: Unleashing the Power of Heterogeneous, Autonomous Swarms in Collective Intelligence
DARPA’s AMASS Program
DARPA launched AMASS program in Dec 2022 that seeks to create an effective, cost-efficient counter-A2/AD capability utilizing a large number of autonomous UAV, USV, and UGV platforms orchestrated through a Theatre-scale, distributed C2 system. While the capabilities created by AMASS could be applied to many missions, this program will be oriented around demonstrating this capability for some specific regional Theatre-level scenarios.
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.
AMASS will build upon previous DARPA and Service investments to create a swarms-of-swarms system that will simultaneously threaten multiple high-valued adversary assets, introduce intolerable cost-exchanges, and enable Joint Force and Coalition operations within the A2/AD bubble. The current vision is that low-cost swarms with diverse sensors and kinetic and non-kinetic effectors would primarily be pre-positioned forward and launched remotely, providing rapid response, and adaptability to overcome the adversary’s time-distance-mass advantage. This technology will provide Combatant Commands with a solution to the A2/AD threat without putting Forces and high-valued assets at risk. Reestablishing Joint Operations and air superiority will enable Combatant Commanders to fully utilize all available assets to defeat or deter adversary aggression.
AMASS specifically leverages lessons learned from DARPA’s System-of-Systems Enhanced
Small Unit (SESU) program. SESU demonstrated that a large number of heterogeneous,
autonomous swarms (i.e., autonomous platforms carrying a variety of different payloads that
coordinate to achieve objectives) present a significant dilemma to adversary A2/AD technologies
in land-based scenarios.
SESU developed, integrated, and demonstrated a system to plan and execute counter-A2/AD missions with swarms, swarm behavior software that enables the swarms to execute missions independently and adapt to change, specific payloads (e.g., communications, navigation, non-kinetic effects, and kinetic effects), and modeling and simulation (M&S) for proving concepts of operations (CONOPS) and experimenting at scale (1,000s of autonomous entities).
Software developed for planning and executing missions, and swarm behavior software were directly integrated with Service large-scale force-on-force simulators to ensure seamless operations between the simulated and live environments to include the ability to conduct Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) experiments. Small-scale, live demonstrations conducted in tandem with large virtual scenarios showed how swarms of UAVs and more traditional long-range fires can be effectively coordinated, used to collect and disseminate intelligence, conduct coordinated Electronic Attack (EA), and strike targets in order to successfully deny, degrade, or defeat adversary A2/AD capabilities.
Empowering Command and Control:
The AMASS initiative focuses on developing advanced command and control (C2) capabilities for swarms-of-swarms. With the increasing complexity of modern warfare scenarios, the ability to effectively coordinate and control large-scale swarm operations becomes critical. DARPA aims to enable real-time decision-making, adaptive coordination, and seamless integration of heterogeneous swarm entities through dynamic C2 mechanisms.
While AMASS will build on this previous work, a successful AMASS performer will likely leverage a wide variety of technologies and experience.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is soliciting innovative proposals in
the following technical area: the dynamic C2 of unmanned, autonomous swarms of various types
(i.e., swarms-of-swarms) with a common C2 language for Theatre-level counter-antiaccess (A2)/area denial (AD) capabilities. This program will be experimentation and scenario
focused with a specific regional emphasis.
Dynamic Command and Control (C2) of unmanned, autonomous swarms refers to the ability to manage, direct, and control a large number of autonomous systems as they perform tasks in real-time. The dynamic nature of autonomous swarms requires an adaptable and flexible C2 approach that can handle the changing needs and objectives of the swarm as it operates.
Advantages of dynamic C2 for autonomous swarms include:
- Improved situational awareness: Dynamic C2 allows for the real-time monitoring and tracking of the swarm, providing decision-makers with improved situational awareness and the ability to quickly respond to changing conditions.
- Increased efficiency: Dynamic C2 enables the swarm to be managed and directed in a more efficient manner, as the C2 system can dynamically allocate resources and adjust the swarm’s objectives as needed.
- Improved mission success: Dynamic C2 can improve the success of swarm missions by allowing the swarm to be quickly reconfigured and redirected as needed, improving the ability to respond to changing conditions and unexpected events.
There are various approaches to dynamic C2 of autonomous swarms, including centralized control, decentralized control, and hybrid control. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the best approach will depend on the specific requirements and objectives of the swarm mission.
Challenges in the implementation of dynamic C2 for autonomous swarms include the development of effective communication and coordination protocols, the design of algorithms for decentralized decision making, and the integration of the C2 system with the swarm platforms and payloads. Despite these challenges, dynamic C2 has the potential to greatly enhance the capabilities and effectiveness of autonomous swarms.
Counter-Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) are mission sets aimed at overcoming the capabilities of an adversary’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems. A2/AD systems are designed to prevent or limit access to an area, typically by military forces, by using a combination of weapons, sensors, and communication systems.
Counter-A2/AD mission sets are typically focused on one or more of the following objectives:
- Disrupting or neutralizing the adversary’s A2/AD systems: This can involve using electronic warfare or other means to disable the adversary’s A2/AD systems, making it possible for friendly forces to operate in the denied area.
- Gaining access to the denied area: This may involve using stealth, deception, or other means to penetrate the adversary’s A2/AD defenses and establish a presence in the denied area.
- Maintaining access to the denied area: This involves ensuring that friendly forces can continue to operate in the denied area despite the adversary’s efforts to limit or prevent access.
Counter-A2/AD mission sets are critical for ensuring that friendly forces can operate effectively in areas where the adversary has established A2/AD capabilities. These missions can involve a wide range of capabilities, including air and naval power, special operations forces, electronic warfare, and space-based systems.
Under the umbrella of counter-A2/AD are the mission sets of counter-Integrated Air Defense
Systems (IADS); counter-Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence,
Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR); counter-radar; counter-maneuver; Beyond Line-ofSight (BLOS) / Over-the-Horizon (OTH) targeting; and ISR. To the greatest extent possible,
DARPA would like to leverage platforms and payloads that already exist or are relatively mature
in their development cycle. Through a common C2 system, architectures, standards, and
interfaces, the disparate UAV, USV, and UGV swarms will be able to communicate through
Artificial Intelligence (AI) liaisons using a common language, and coordinate the execution of desired Theatre-level effects without substantially impacting the existing designs and intended
purposes of the specific systems.
Central to the AMASS program is the ability to plan and execute missions that utilize thousands
of autonomous entities in the degradation or defeat of adversary A2/AD capabilities. To achieve
this goal, swarms will be assigned through an optimization process that considers mission
objectives, priorities, risks, resource availability, swarm capabilities, and timing. In addition,
AMASS will consider the needs of potential future missions when selecting swarms and swarm
To facilitate seamless operations of disparate swarms without the need to make major modifications to current autonomous platform programs, a common swarm language will
be developed (hereafter referred to as the Swarms-of-Swarms Protocol (SOSP)). The common
swarm language (i.e., SOSP) will allow swarms running different autonomy software to interact
with the AMASS distributed, hierarchical, Swarms-of-Swarms C2 system enabling the AMASS
C2 system to request services, negotiate, and exchange information with swarms that are
available in the region.
Ideally, AMASS Swarms-of-Swarms C2 will control multiple heterogeneous swarms with different capabilities and behaviors without having intimate knowledge of how the swarms work or substantially impacting the intended purpose of the swarms. AMASS C2 may be accomplished directly with the swarm through liaison payloads on the swarm and/or through the swarm’s native C2 system.
The defined swarm language and specifications will enable a common system integrated by Swarms-of-Swarms C2 to plan and execute counter-A2/AD missions with Service, Coalition, and DARPA swarms. The architecture development will focus on optimizing swarm size, depth and span of control to achieve the necessary scale. In addition, the architecture development will address the distributed, hierarchical, and secure communications required for large numbers of swarms. The last element of the architecture development will focus on incorporating cyber robustness and resilience to the swarms-of-swarms.
This program will experiment with C2 for counter-A2/AD missions leveraging several hundred autonomous platforms consisting of DARPA, Service, and Coalition swarms in tandem with thousands more virtual platforms integrated via M&S. The core focus is scaling Swarms-of-Swarms C2 efforts for incorporating disparate air, ground, and surface swarms which were not originally designed for operating as an integrated swarms-of-swarms
AMASS will be adaptable to new threats and Theatres of operation through the use of open
software and hardware interfaces that can be rapidly modified. Pipelines will be established to
rapidly provide the data required for training and configuring the Swarms-of-Swarms C2, Swarm
C2 autonomous behaviors, and sensor, kinetic and non-kinetic payloads. AMASS will be
interoperable with legacy Joint Service C2 systems and intelligence systems promoting the
information exchange necessary for Theatre-level operations, integrating AMASS into the
military decision-making process, facilitating rapid adoption by the Services, and enabling
Joint/Coalition Multi-Domain operations.
Enhancing Situational Awareness:
Situational awareness is a crucial factor in military operations. AMASS seeks to enhance situational awareness by leveraging swarm intelligence and sensor fusion techniques. Swarms-of-swarms equipped with various sensors, including cameras, radars, and other advanced detection systems, can collect real-time data, analyze the environment, and provide comprehensive situational awareness to human operators.
Adaptive and Resilient Operations:
The AMASS initiative places significant emphasis on the adaptability and resilience of swarm systems. In dynamic warfare scenarios, where conditions rapidly change and the environment becomes unpredictable, swarms-of-swarms must be capable of autonomously adjusting their strategies, reallocating resources, and adapting to evolving threats. This adaptability and resilience ensure the continued effectiveness of swarm operations even in challenging situations.
Addressing Potential Threats:
The development of command and control capabilities for swarms-of-swarms through the AMASS initiative is driven by the need to address potential threats and challenges faced by modern militaries. By harnessing the power of swarms, defense forces can counter emerging threats, such as asymmetric warfare tactics, electronic warfare, and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies employed by adversaries.
Implications for Future Defense Strategies:
The progress made under the AMASS initiative holds significant implications for future defense strategies. Swarms-of-swarms empowered by advanced C2 mechanisms offer the potential to enhance military effectiveness, reduce risks to human personnel, and enable efficient resource utilization. These systems can be deployed in various contexts, including surveillance and reconnaissance, target acquisition, battlefield coordination, and logistics support.
Ethical and Legal Considerations:
While the development of swarms-of-swarms technology brings promising advancements, it also raises ethical and legal considerations. DARPA, in alignment with its commitment to responsible innovation, acknowledges the importance of addressing these concerns. Safeguards must be implemented to ensure adherence to ethical standards, minimize collateral damage, protect civilian populations, and comply with international laws governing armed conflict.
DARPA’s AMASS initiative represents a significant step forward in the development of command and control capabilities for swarms-of-swarms. By harnessing the collective intelligence and collaborative power of interconnected swarm systems, defense forces can gain a strategic advantage against potential threats. While the technology offers tremendous potential, it is vital to ensure responsible deployment and address ethical considerations. As DARPA continues to advance the AMASS program, we can expect further advancements that will shape the future of defense strategies and contribute to the protection of national security interests.