By Kris Osborn
The Pentagon is in the early phases of developing swarms of mini-drones able launch attacks, jam enemy radar, confuse enemy air defenses and conduct wide-ranging surveillance missions, officials explained.
The effort, which would bring a new range of strategic and tactical advantages to the U.S. military, will be focused on as part of a special Pentagon unit called the Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO.
While the office has been in existence for some period of time, it was publicly announced by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter during the recent 2017 budget proposal discussions. The new office will, among other things, both explore emerging technologies and also look at new ways of leveraging existing weapons and platforms.
Carter said swarming autonomous drones are a key part of this broader effort to adapt emerging technologies to existing and future warfighting needs.
“Another project uses swarming autonomous vehicles in all sorts of ways and in multiple domains. In the air, they develop micro-drones that are really fast, really resistant. They can fly through heavy winds and be kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9, like they did during an operational exercise in Alaska last year, or they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert,” Carter said. "And for the water, they've developed self-driving boats which can network together to do all kinds of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance, without putting sailors at risk. Each one of these leverages the wider world of technology."
Air Force Effort
The Air Force is supporting this effort and making progress developing swarms of mini-drones engineered with algorithms which enable them to coordinate with one another and avoid collisions.
Senior Air Force officials have said that the precise roles and missions for this type of technology are still in the process of being determined; however, experts and analyst are already discussing numerous potential applications for the technology.
Swarms of drones could cue one another and be able to blanket an area with sensors even if one or two get shot down. The technology could be designed for high threat areas building in strategic redundancy, Air Force officials said.
Groups of coordinated small drones could also be used to confuse enemy radar systems and overwhelm advanced enemy air defenses by providing so many targets that they cannot be dealt with all at once, analysts have said.
Also, small groups of drones operating together could function as munitions or weapons delivery technology. A small class of mini-drone weapons already exist, such as AeroVironment’s Switchblade drone designed to deliver precision weapons effects. The weapon, which can reach distances up to 10 kilometers, is engineered as a low-cost expendable munition loaded with sensors and munitions.
Air Force plans for new drones are part of a new service strategy to be explained in a paper released last year called “autonomous horizons.” Air Force strategy also calls for greater manned-unmanned teaming between drones and manned aircraft such as F-35s. This kind of effort could help facilitate what Carter said about mini-drones launching from a high-speed fighter jet.
In the future, fighter aircraft such as the F-35 or an F-22 may be able to control drones themselves from the cockpit to enhance missions by carrying extra payload, extending a surveillance area or delivering weapons, Air Force scientists have said.
Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Research is also working on drone-swarming technology through an ongoing effort called Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology, or LOCUST. This involves groups of small, tube-launched UAVs designed to swarm and overwhelm adversaries, Navy officials explained.
“Researchers continue to push the state-of-the-art in autonomy control and plan to launch 30 autonomous UAVs in 2016 in under a minute,” an ONR statement said last year.
A demonstration was planned from a ship called a Sea Fighter, a high-speed, shallow-water experimental ship developed by the ONR.
Army Defends Against Mini-Drones
While swarms of mini-drones clearly bring a wide range of tactical offensive and defensive advantages, there is also the realistic prospect that adversaries or potential adversaries could use drone swarms against the U.S.
This is a scenario the services, including the Army in particular, are exploring.
The Army launched swarms of mini-attack drones against battlefield units in mock-combat drills as a way to better understand potential threats expected in tomorrow’s conflicts, service officials said.
Pentagon threat assessment officials have for quite some time expressed concern that current and future enemies of the U.S. military might seek to use massive swarms of mini-drones to blanket an area with surveillance cameras, jam radar signals, deliver weapons or drop small bombs on military units.
As a result, the Army Test and Evaluation Command is put these scenarios to the test in the desert as part of the service’s Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
The mini-drones used were inexpensive, off-the-shelf commercial systems likely to be acquired and used by potential adversaries in future conflict scenarios.
The drones were configured to carry special payloads for specific mission functions. Cameras, bomb simulators, expanded battery packs and other systems will be tested on the aircraft to develop and analyze potential capabilities of the drones, an Army statement said.
The mini-drones, which included $1000-dollar quadcopters made by 3-D Robotics, were placed in actual mock-combat scenarios and flown against Army units in test exercises.
“Acting as a member of the opposing force, the drones will be used for short-range missions, and for flooding the airspace to generate disruptive radar signatures. They will also be used as a kind of spotter, using simple video cameras to try and locate Soldiers and units,” an Army statement from before the exercise said.
There were also plans to fit the drones with the ability to drop packets of flour, simulating the ability for the swarm to drop small bombs, allowing the drones to perform short-range strike missions, the Army statement said.
"Right now there's hardly anyone doing swarms, most people are flying one, maybe two, but any time you can get more than one or two in the air at the same time, and control them by waypoint with one laptop, that's important," James Story, an engineer with the Targets Management Office, Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, said in a statement last Fall. "You're controlling all five of them, and all five of them are a threat."