Swarm Drones: Could they Shape the Future of Naval Warfare?

23 Jan, 2018    ·   5426

Dr Vijay Sakhuja argues that next-generation hybrid drone-missile unmanned systems may characterise the future naval realm

Drones operating in swarms are the new threat to militaries. In a recent case, Russian radars stationed around Latakia, Syria detected a swarm of 10 fixed-wing drones strapped with small rockets descend over the Hmeimim air base. Concurrently, another group of three drones were detected heading for Russian Naval CSS point near the city of Tartus. The Russian Pantsir-S anti-aircraft system - known by the NATO codename, SA-22 Greyhound - and rapid firing auto-cannons shot down seven of these drones, and the balance were successfully swatted and crash landed by using electronic warfare assets.

Further, Russia also made public their successes with the Pantsir-S anti-aircraft system in countering drones including destroying the Bayraktar drone from Turkey, Israeli Heron, and the US Navy and Marine Corps' RQ-21A Blackjack. Apparently, in 2012, a Syrian Pantsir system was reported to have brought down a Turkish reconnaissance jet.

Although aircraft and helicopters have traditionally ruled the skies, in recent times, unmanned vehicles credited with low weight, small size, and ability to carry a variety of payloads and ordnance have found place in military inventories. The efficacy and successes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for firepower and in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions have been demonstrated in a number of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and more recently, in Yemen.

The drones fall in the same category as UAVs but are smaller, cheaper, and commercially available, thus offering an attractive option. They have a higher level of automation and their use in commercial operations is well established. Their  effectiveness is further augmented when they are operated in swarms. The concept of ‘swarm drones’ is inspired by bees or locusts which fly long distances in indefinite groups, unlimited in size and number, and apparently without colliding. ‘Swarm drones’ are programmed to follow very simple commands that do not require advanced computers and sensors, and therefore their collective numbers could be of the order of  hundreds and potentially thousands, which can conjure a lethal force on the battlefield.

China is a leader in ‘smart and intelligent drone’ technologies, and in December 2017, during an aerial show at Guangzhou, it set the world record for the largest drone swarm ever deployed. On display were 1,180 drones that ‘danced and blinked’ autonomously with precision for nearly nine minutes, exhibiting the potential future of ‘swarm drone’ technology. China plans to develop next-generation anti-stealth drones and operate these beyond the skies into near space alongside high-altitude airships and hypersonic spy planes.

In the naval domain, the Chinese have set out ambitious plans to build ‘swarm drones’ that can be deployed over large areas for intelligence-gathering missions. These drones can also be strapped with explosives to carry out ‘saturation attacks’ on an enemy ship or even adopt kamikaze tactics to simultaneously dive in to attack from different directions and defeat ship-based anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences.

Likewise, in the US, many advances in ‘swarm drones’ are underway; for instance,  over a hundred  3D-printed disposable Perdix drones - each weighing a few hundred grams - were released from F/A-18 fighter through dispensers used for flares. These can potentially "suppress enemy air defences by acting as decoys or jammers or by locating radar so they can be destroyed."

The US Navy has plans to use intelligent and smart ‘swarm drones’ that can split into sub-swarms for different missions, as also new swarms to join seamlessly the mother-swarm. The US Marine Corps is conceptualising ‘swarm drones’ in amphibious operations to use them as "the first wave to hit the beach ahead of the humans, scouting, locating enemy positions, and possibly attacking them" as also setting up swarm-versus-swarm wargames by developing "drone catchers" that will capture or neutralise rogue drones.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is keen to use larger aircraft such as the C-130 by which drones are launched and then retrieved based on the mid-air refuelling concept alongside sea-based platforms to capture drones as they come to land.

‘Swarm drones’ can be easily launched and controlled from remote and inaccessible locations. Their role may not be limited to non-kinetic missions such as ‘eyes in the sky’; instead they can do far more combat damage. Their ability to ‘self-organise in sub-swarms’ could be a game-changer in military and naval operations, achieved through coordinated and distributed attacks to saturate defences and breaching an adversary’s A2/AD strategy. 

According to market assessments, the drone/UAV industry is set to grow by nearly 20 per cent annually from US$ 17.82 billion in 2017 to US$ 48.88 billion by 2023. Although most of this growth will take place in the civil domain, the ripple effects will be seen in the military where research and development in new unmanned systems will take higher precedence. The next-generation hybrid drone-missile unmanned systems may characterise the future naval realm, thereby challenging conventional monolithic systems. These would complement the ‘stand-off’ rages of the naval missiles and counter the broader A2/AD strategy at sea.