Swarm Drones — New Frontier...
Effectively beats legacy AD Systems
as proved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict especially when faced with swarm drone attacks. However, their chances of success against integrated AD systems of leading powers like the US, Russia or China is highly debatable which are networked and layered comprising long, medium and short range weapon systems to defend their air and land space. Without a networked and layered AD system even the US systems failed to detect the Houthi drone attack on Saudi Oil Company facilities. The Air Defence systems today must be supported by electronic warfare and specialised counter unmanned systems (C-UAS) to defend against Swarm Drone attacks.
Disruptive Effect against Ground based Weapon Systems.
During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict the Armenian tanks, Mechanised Infantry vehicles, artillery guns and limited Air Defence weapon systems were picked up and destroyed like ninepins by the Azeri drones supplied by Turkey and Israel thus proving a point that efficacy of such weapons in a limited AD environment will do wonders. It also gives an opportunity to countries like India to redefine their force structuring and military capability development. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has proven that a small conventional force led by persistent drone attacks is not only a lethal and potent option but also a cheaper option. Although critics might say that we can operate with impunity after achieving air superiority or favourable air situation but in a swarm drone battle space this may just be partially true. The primary weapon platform of the ground forces, the tank, also came under fire from the drones thus suggesting that probably tanks will now have to carry a C-UAS system with them to ensure their security like an anti-missile system.
Limited effect of Terrain, Camouflage and Dispersion was distinctly visible as highlighted by Michael Kofman writing in Moscow Times. The drones were able to overcome the terrain and camouflage advantages of the ground forces through onboard sensors and reconnaissance equipment of the drones. Similarly, with loiter capability and mass drone employment the dispersion tactics was also neutralised. The Armenians Armed Forces had no chance in hell to fight the Azeris who were larger in numbers (Azerbaijan is ranked 68th to Armenia being 100th in Global Firepower Index) and better in quality due to strong backing by Turkey and even supported to a limited extent by the Israelis.
Where does India Stand?
India recently demonstrated a swarm drone technology demonstration with Quadcopters on Army Day 2021. However small it may be but it has definitely indicated the intent of the Indian Armed Forces to move in this direction. It is the next frontier of warfare and we better be amongst the leaders in this domain. While there are a number of strategic lessons to be learnt from the NagornoKarabakh conflict, it is military lessons highlighted above that should be of concern for us. India is deadlocked into perpetual conflict with Pakistan which greatly resembles the setting of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, in recent times India is dealing with an aggressive and expansionist China and locked into a prolonged eyeball to eyeball conflict in Ladakh whose prognosis remains uncertain. We must also be cognisant of the fact that China today enjoys a significant edge in drone technology in fact it is almost in league with the world leader the US. So where does India stand. Sadly, while a number of startups have sprung up in this sector, we have a long way to go. While interacting with a few players and experts it was realised that a decisive public-private partnership backed strongly by the Ministry of Defence in collaboration with the world leaders (USA, Israel or UK) in this technology is the only way to catch up with China.
Fortunately, in keeping with the above approach India has also commenced development of such a system in collaboration with the US as part of the 2 Plus 2 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). However, with the advent of the Biden era it needs to be closely watched whether this initiative will be taken forward on high priority. Meanwhile, HAL is also working in collaboration with a startup “New Space Research Technology.” The proposed system is named as ‘Air Launched Flexible Asset-Swarm’ (ALFA-S). It is likely to be a 1 – 2 meters long canister based drone capable of being launched from air crafts / helicopters. As per HAL, it may take upto two years to develop a prototype. Similarly, as discussed earlier we need to develop the ability to deal with such threats. Solutions have to be found both in terms of ability to shoot them down and neutralizing them through electronic warfare. Writing is clear on the wall, unless we remain abreast with the world leaders in niche technology areas of defence we will remain handicapped in any future traditional or non-traditional threats. India must ensure that the “Swarm Drone Attack System” is based on the principles of size of the swarm, survivability of the drones and the mix of the various types of drones in operations both for conventional and unconventional threats. Likewise, based on this emerging frontier of warfare India should review it's warfighting doctrine, concepts, capabilities and if need be modifying its force structure. It is a highly competitive and devastating battlefield of the future and we need to match up to the changing dynamics of warfare and technologies associated with it.