Current weapons generally fly a pre-designated mission. If the enemy does something unexpected, preprogrammed weapons are ineffective, and additional weapons may be required to complete the mission. Autonomous, Networked, and collaborative weapons are advantageous since they observe and react to the enemy in real time, helping weapons overcome adversary defenses before the enemy can respond with effective countermeasures. This capability will enhance mission success rates by providing adaptability, flexibility and responsiveness in attacks and by increasing the speed and accuracy of target destruction.
One of the Autonomous weapon is a loitering munition also known as a suicide drone or kamikaze drone, a weapon system category in which the munition loiters around the target area for some time, searches for targets, and attacks once a target is located. Loitering munitions may be as simple as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with attached explosives that is sent on a potential kamikaze mission, and may even be constructed with off the shelf commercial quadcopters with strapped on explosives. Purpose built munitions are more elaborate in flight and control capabilities, warhead size and design, and on-board sensors for locating targets. Some loitering munitions use a human operator to locate targets whereas others, such as IAI Harop, can function autonomously searching and launching attacks without human intervention.
Loitering munitions enable faster reaction times against concealed or hidden targets that emerge for short periods without placing high-value platforms close to the target area, and also allow more selective targeting as the actual attack mission can be aborted. Loitering munitions fit in the niche between cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) sharing characteristics with both. They differ from cruise missiles in that they are designed to loiter for a relatively long time around the target area, and from UCAVs in that a loitering munition is intended to be expended in an attack and has a built-in warhead.
Some loitering munitions may return and be recovered by the operator if they are unused in an attack and have enough fuel; in particular this is characteristic of UAVs with a secondary explosive capability. Other systems, such as Delilah or IAI Harop, don’t have a recovery option and are self-destructed in mission aborts
In the 1980s, a number of programs, such as the IAI Harpy or the AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow, integrated anti-radiation sensors into a drone or missile air frames coupled with command and control and loitering capabilities. This allowed the attacking force to place relatively cheap munitions in place over suspected SAM sites, and to attack promptly the moment the SAM battery is visible. This integrated the use of a drone as a baiting decoy with the attack role into one small and relatively cheap platform in comparison to the alternative wild weasel jet fighter.
Starting in the 2000s, loitering weapons have been developed for additional roles beyond the initial SEAD role ranging from relatively long-range strikes and fire support down to tactical, very short-range battlefield use such as the AeroVironment Switchblade which is deployed at the platoon level and fits in a backpack. A documented use of loitering munitions was in 2016 Nagorno-Karabakh clashes in which an IAI Harop was used against a bus functioning as a troop transport.
Networked collaborative weapons share data, interact, develop and execute coordinated actions or behaviors. They use shared data to improve information across an entire group of weapons – sometimes called a swarm – thereby improving the effectiveness of the entire swarm. When each weapon shares measurements of a target’s location, combining this information reduces errors since it creates a more accurate target location for all to reference. Ultimately, this supports the use of lower-cost sub-systems in place of more expensive systems without sacrificing capability.
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.
US Marine Corps wants grunts packing deadly swarming drones
The Marine Corps has been trying to reshape itself as a primarily maritime force that can distribute forces over a massive battlefield such as the South China Sea, operating inside the Chinese weapon engagement zone that may be too dangerous for many military assets to operate inside until certain key objectives can be seized or neutralized. This has led the force to look at ways to pack as much capability into small, disbursed groups of Marines, something the portable drone swarms could support.
The U.S. Marine Corps is looking to equip its infantry units with a man-portable, swarming loitering munition that experts say is part of its shift toward countering China with a light and deadly seaborne infantry force. The so-called “Organic Precision Fires – Infantry Light” program is seeking ground-launched drones that can be deployed with no more than two people, have a range of up to 20 kilometers, loiter for 90 minutes, swarm, be jam resistant and be able to take out enemy troops and materiel, according to a November request for information.
Special operations forces have used small loitering munition drones in combat for some time, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at The Hudson Institute, pointing to the AeroVironment Switchblade system. But the swarming effect is something that would take the system a step further, he added.
“The swarming idea would be, ‘How do I overwhelm the enemy’s defenses and cut off lines of escape,’” Clark explained. “If I’m a Marine unit, I’m generally going after a group of people, not just one or two guys the way SOF might be. But the idea here is to cause an area effect. You want to overwhelm defenses or cause explosions over a wider area to try and herd your adversary or cut off lines of retreat.
“You might create a blast pattern or detonate in some kind of order that herds your adversary into an area that you want to be a kill box. So, swarming for the Marine Corps would be about driving your enemy’s behavior in ways advantageous to yourself.” Marines might also be able to use a swarm as a decoy and try to get the adversary to look for the unit in the wrong locations.
In some ways, this kind of unmanned system could be more effective than traditional Marine implements of war such as a .50 caliber machine gun, said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine and analyst with The Heritage Foundation. In a future fight, Marines will need to think about units that are “as effective as possible with as small a signature as possible,” Wood said. “You are looking for weapon systems that can maximize the effectiveness of finding and eliminating a target while minimizing the logistical burden on the unit,” he said. “And you want to maximize the range and any intelligence that system can deliver to you.
“If I have a .50 cal: Hugely heavy, massive logistics burden to carry around the ammo, its very effective on target but I got to get it on target first, and it’s certainly revealing my position. If I have a man-portable unmanned system that I can launch with a camera, it’s small in size so its detectability is reduced, it can send that information back to the unit and it can also hit a target with great precision: That’s an awesome capability to have.”
The swarming capability makes it even more lethal, Wood said, because the drones can communicate with each other to maximize the effectiveness of the strike by attacking from different axes. Both Clark and Wood agreed that this isn’t a science fiction project but technology that exists today, which means it could be available much more quickly than a typical long-duration DoD acquisition program. “It’s another indicator of the Marine Corps looking for current technologies that can allow small units to operate autonomously with a low logistical burden,” Wood said.
USAF’s Golden Horde
The Golden Horde initiative, chosen as an Air Force Vanguard program in 2019, will integrate datalink radios and collaborative behaviors on inventory weapon systems to demonstrate the mission effectiveness of networked collaborative weapon capabilities for our warfighters. This effort will validate an integrated system where different technologies work together to defeat targets.
Golden Horde involves placing datalink radios and collaborative behaviors on existing weapons, starting with the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb I (CSDB-1) and Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD). The behaviors operate what the service calls “playbooks,” allowing the weapons to make semi-autonomous decisions.
Here’s how Golden Horde would work: A pair of F-16 fighters might target a set of concrete aircraft shelters at an enemy air base. The first fighter targets four shelters with four CSDB-1s, destroying two. The second fighter, flying right behind the first, releases its CSDB-1s while the first jet’s weapons are already in the air. The second fighter’s bombs receive data that two of the shelters are destroyed. The second flight of bombs, consulting Golden Horde’s playbook, reassigns the bombs in flight to destroy the remaining shelters.
The result is a more efficient use of munitions, allowing bombs to direct themselves against unserviced targets. This makes it less likely that human pilots would have to make a second run on their targets, which is particularly important in defended airspace, where air defenses that might have been caught by surprise by the first attack could be on full alert for a successive attack.
Instead of bracing themselves to make multiple passes against an increasingly alert adversary, pilots can release their weapons and then concentrate on flying their jet home. The playbooks don’t allow Golden Horde-enabled weapons to be fully autonomous; they won’t look for new targets on their own. Instead, playbooks only allows weapons to make choices about striking existing targets: If Target A is not available, strike Target B, C, or team up with missile #7 to strike D. It’s reasonable to assume this might eventually grow to include new, last-minute targets selected by human battle managers.
The ability for Golden Horde weapons to actually make a choice is new to weapons and warfare. In the past, weapons were called “smart weapons” due to their use of onboard maps, lasers, or GPS data to find their targets. Golden Horde, however, takes things a step further by actually making decisions. While the weapons lack real cognitive thought and are forced to choose from a narrow set of “plays,” the weapons do make decisions nonetheless.
The US Air Force (USAF) Golden Horde Vanguard programme has completed the first flight demonstration of collaborative weapons, reported in Jan 2020. The demonstration, which used technology developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Scientific Applications & Research Associates, was partly successful. Following their launch, the bombs established communication with each other and their seekers detected a GPS jammer. The weapons determined that the jammer was not the highest priority target, as referred to predefined rules of engagement, and then collaborated to identify the two highest priority targets. However, the weapon navigation system failed to receive the collaboration guidance commands due to an improper weapon software load. Subsequently, the weapons impacted a failsafe target location, as the target locations were not updated.
Air Force researchers will test whether a software simulation of its developmental weapons swarm can maneuver through a combat mission and reroute itself as conditions change. The demonstration is part of the Golden Horde vanguard, which aims to create munition swarms that autonomously work together when fired and “think” on their own to attack targets that match specific criteria. Golden Horde assets could be used for traditional airstrikes, or carry sensors and other payloads for missions from reconnaissance to electronic warfare to aerial refueling.
According to Defense News, F-16 tests will be followed by B-52H bombers testing the Collaborative Miniature Air Launched Decoy (CMALD), a Golden Horde version of an air-launched drone designed to mimic friendly fighters on enemy radars. The Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), a large, subsonic cruise missile that was used in April 2018 to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon facilities, could be another weapon included in the Golden Horde in the future. JASSM is designed to fly hundreds of miles through defended airspace to attack critical targets, making every warhead count.
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