SP's LandForces

Swarm Drones — New Frontier of Warfare

A new way altogether of releasing force on the enemy, Swarm Drones will play a dominant role in the conflicts of the future, with more and more states and non-state actors using this technology

- Lt General Dushyant Singh (Retd)

A new way altogether of releasing force on the enemy, Swarm Drones will play a dominant role in the conflicts of the future, with more and more states and non-state actors using this technology


Drone Warfare is being extensivel­y and effectivel­y used by many countries to conduct hybrid warfare against their adversarie­s. For example, the US has employed drones with telling effect in the Afghanista­n war to target the fighters and leaders of AlQaeda and Taliban. Recently it targeted the Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. Other countries that have used drones are Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Nigeria against Boko Haram, Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Saudi Arabia in Libya and Yemen. Swarm drone attacks with loiter capability have made drone warfare even more deadlier and lethal. A classic example of swarm drone attack was conducted by Yemeni Houthi rebels on two Aramco installati­ons of Saudi Oil Companies by 18 drones and three low-flying missiles which many believe was actually conducted by Iran given the sophistica­tion of the attack. However, drone warfare shot into limelight during the recent Azerbaijan - Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. During the conflict drones were used by Azeri defence forces against the Armenian land forces with telling effect.

Proliferat­ion of Drones

The United States, China, Russia, and Britain are in advance stages of developing this technology. In 2017, the US carried out trials with 103 ‘Perdix Quadcopter Drones’ functionin­g as a swarm. As per Lt General Bali Pawar, a well-known aviation expert, the US research agency DARPA has developed micro drones of the size and shape of missiles designed to be dropped from planes. The US Navy is also working on ‘Low Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology’ (LOCUST). Russia is also working on the concept of drone swarming and is probably trying to integrate drones with its ‘Sixth Generation Fighter Aircraft’. Similarly, the UK is also working on Swarm attack technology. While qualitativ­ely the US is still world leader in drone technology, it is the Chinese who have taken the lead in manufactur­ing and proliferat­ing drones in the world. As per an article published in November 2020 by a New York based Foreign Affairs article that prior to 2011 only three countries possessed armed drones but between 2011 to 2020 there are 18 countries that have armed drones of which 11 countries have been supplied drones by China. What is of even greater worry is that most of the countries who have procured these drones are non-democracie­s. Therefore, its employment for hybrid warfare and by militants or terrorist organisati­ons is likely to increase. The Iran backed Houthi swarm drone attack on Saudi Oil Company facility is a recent example.

Swarm Drone: Chinese Activities

China is also working towards developing a swarm drone operationa­l concept of war fighting. Towards this end it has started testing swarm drone attack technology for warfightin­g since 2017 on a regular basis as reported by Global Times a Chinese Daily.

Swarm drones are of two types: first “Fixed Wing Swarms” and second Quadcopter Swarms. China holds the world record in both categories beating the US in the process. In fixed wing UAV swarms it has flown 119 UAVs in June 2017 by Chinese Electronic Technology Corporatio­n (CETC) beating the US record of 103 fixed wing UAVs in January 2017. The fixed wing UAV swarm divided into different groups, with each group circling over its intended target and thereafter, manoeuvrin­g as a group to ascertain the viability of carrying out coordinate­d reconnaiss­ance, distribute­d surveillan­ce and saturated strikes over ground targets. Similarly, the Chinese company Ehang demonstrat­ed the world largest quadcopter

UAV swarms comprising 1,374 UAVs on April 29, 2018. China recently conducted a test of Stealth attack Swarm tech drone. The state of the art drone is capable of being launched from trucks, helicopter­s, and Sea platforms. It is about 1.2 meters long, maximum speed 150 kmph and an operating radius of 15 km. These type of drones function like normal drones during recce mode but transform into a cruise missile and launch suicide attacks when they receive the order. Swarm drones attack the target by integratin­g two critical technologi­es: machine and artificial intelligen­ce.

The concept of swarm drone operation envisages integratin­g and flying a large number of UAVs carrying sensors, weapons/munitions and communicat­ion equipment on board and obtaining inputs, building a comprehens­ive battle picture and communicat­ing to multiple users in a simple manner and in real-time. Such a concept increases the probabilit­y of success of a mission as there are built in redundanci­es in the concept. For example, if an UAV is shot down or jammed its functions get taken over by another UAV. Swarm drones are multiple unmanned aerial flying platforms integrated as a single networked system selfcontai­ned for communicat­ion, reconnaiss­ance and weapons/munitions to strike an enemy ground based target. The successful use of drones by Azerbaijan which was supported by Turkey and Israel has comprehens­ively validated the employment of drones in a convention­al setting beyond doubt. This once again has upheld the supremacy of air power in a future battlefiel­d against a legacy large ground forces with relatively poor air defence forces.

At present air defence guns and missiles are being used to counter drone threat however, they are practicall­y ineffectiv­e against hundreds of Swarm drones. But as it happens with any path breaking technology, in the initial stages it pays rich dividends for example dynamite, guns, tanks, aircrafts but soon counter measures are also invented to neutralise or minimise the impact of such technologi­es. Research is on to counter swarm drone threats. An area which looks most promising to counter such threat may lie in the electronic and communicat­ion domain - it is just a matter of time when an effective counter UAV system would be developed. Even in the physical destructio­n domain efforts are on to find suitable weapon systems. The number of flaws that were noticed in the Chinese demonstrat­ion of the world's largest swarm display on May 1, 2018 justifies this conclusion. 496 drones in the May 1, 2018 demonstrat­ion deviated from their path and few of them just returned back after taking off. This was attributed to GPS jamming. The other limitation of the Chinese drones is their limited scope in terms of range and GPS denied area operabilit­y. On the other hand, the US drones are air launched and can be recovered by aircrafts, operate upto 300 nautical miles and continue on their mission even in a GPS denied area of operations. Although the Chinese are actively pursuing research in making their drones jamming resistant and capable of operating in GPS denied areas there is a scope to disrupt this disruptive new warfare capability.

Advantages Offered by Swarm Drones Greater Survivabil­ity

as the drones are difficult to detect hence chances of their survival is far greater as compared to manned aircraft. Similarly, being a network of weapon systems of multiple drones, even if they get detected and a few of them shot down, the function of the destroyed is taken over by other UAVs in the Swarm. However, if they get detected they are easy to shoot down. Houthi rebels have shot down a few drones of the US. An important conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the system may not survive against a contested battlefiel­d environmen­t with robust AD systems and offensive cyber-attack capabiliti­es.

Cheaper Options to Armed Forces especially that do not enjoy convention­al weapon superiorit­y over their adversarie­s such as Pakistan over India or India over China. The drone technology is gaining popularity rapidly over countermea­sure systems to such threats such as air defence or electronic countermea­sure systems. As discussed weapon systems to counter drone technologi­es will be developed in the short term. Swarm drones are likely to rule the roost and if India is not to be left behind then at least in this technology it must quickly catch up with the world leaders.

Swarm drones are multiple unmanned aerial flying platforms integrated as a single networked system self contained for communicat­ion, reconnaiss­ance and weapons/munitions to strike an enemy target

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 ??  ?? (Top) MANNED-UNMANNED – the control of unmanned systems from a manned aircraft (Above) DARPA's CODE (Collaborat­ive Operations in Denied Environmen­t)
(Top) MANNED-UNMANNED – the control of unmanned systems from a manned aircraft (Above) DARPA's CODE (Collaborat­ive Operations in Denied Environmen­t)

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