WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Imagine trying to stop thousands of kamikaze drones – it’d be difficult to impossible which is why the US military wants them.
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As the Chinese prioritise developing swarms of hypersonic drones, and the US develops tech to take them all down, and a few months after the United Nations announced the first ever alleged autonomous drone kill in combat, the US Navy it seems has a slightly less ambitious goal after they announced that they’re working towards making the nightmarish drone swarms seen in Call of Duty and movies like Angel has Fallen a reality in modern combat. These Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled flocks of autonomous buzzing drones could potentially be launched to overwhelm air defense or nose dive from the sky in kamikaze-esque airstrikes according to budget documents reviewed by MIT Technology Review. The project’s name: Super Swarm. Naturally.
While the Navy and other entities within the US military and its allies have experimented with groups of drones and drone wingmen for some time now, including releasing drone swarms from F/A-18’s, the budget document provides clear, detailed visions illustrating how the department could one day use the swarms on the battlefield.
The documents say the drone swarms could launch from a variety of platforms, such as submarines or aircraft, like this prototype from Lockheed Martin, and could include a variety of different payloads ranging from explosives to electronic jammers or gear for troops.
Watch offensive drone swarms go hunting …
DEALRS meanwhile, another project reportedly presented in the document, attempts to solve current drones’ finicky range issues by creating a larger so-called “mothership” – essentially a flying aircraft carrier that I’ve talked about before – that’d be capable of carrying and launching multiple drones.
Then the MASS project, which stands for Manufacturing of Autonomous Systems at Scale, seeks to use 3D printing to one day create vast amounts of cheap, expendable drones. Currently, some of the military’s more advanced small drones can cost upwards of $200,000 per unit, so driving down costs will play a crucial role in any future drone swarms.
When deployed in actual combat scenarios, the Navy’s drone swarms could potentially act as a first form of attack capable of breaching through thick defenses and softening them up for follow up airstrikes or ground force invasions. The sheer amount of drones in a swarm – DARPA believes it’s possible to create swarms of thousands of drones – means they can still throw a wrench in an enemy’s defenses even if many of them are shot down.
Organized groups or cooperative drones, while not exactly the modern advanced sci-fi vision of drone swarms movie aficionados may have in their head, have nonetheless played a decisive role in recent conflicts, especially in regards to the war in Ukraine. At the war’s onset, Ukrainian officials called on Kyiv hobby drone owners to use their drones to conduct reconnaissance and monitor Russian military movements. Months later, with the war escalating, the US reportedly sent the Ukrainian military batches of Phoenix Ghost unmanned aerial drones designed for tactical operations. Tactical operations, in this case, means combat.
“Like almost all unmanned aerial systems, it has optics, so it can also be used to give you a site picture of what it’s seeing, of course.” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said at the time. “But its principle focus is attack.”
Most recently Russia used Iranian built Shahed-136 so-called “suicide drones” which were used intentionally to hurl into at least four targets in Kyiv, including a residential building and a train station.
Though the documents uncovered by MIT Technology Review provide clearer glimpses into the US military’s thinking around potential tactical applications of drone swarms, they aren’t an entirely new concept. DARPA, the defense departments’ gonzo research and development team, has spent years publicly trying to crack the drone swarm code in fascinating, and more often than not, terrifying ways.
DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) researchers have reportedly conducted at least six field experiments with these drone swarms since 2017, with a top official telling FedScoop they believe the US military could potentially deploy the tech within five years. The agency’s also investing in novel ways to wirelessly charge that massive drone armada. The video clip shows researchers testing out flocks of autonomously air and ground drones at a training facility in Tennessee.
Though it’s still unclear exactly how a future army of buzzing drones would operate on the battlefield, DARPA’s suggested it wants to use augmented and virtual reality, along with voice and touch gestures, to provide the swarm’s human controller with a common interface that grants them, “immersive situational awareness and decision presentation capabilities.”
At the same time, other countries like China, Russia, and Israel are all reportedly vying to close the technology gap with the US and deploy swarms of their own. In Israel’s case, it became the first military known to have used a drone swarm in combat last year after it deployed an unspecified number of drones during its May conflict in the Gaza strip. The drones reportedly worked in tandem to identify enemy locations, and fed back information that was used to conduct dozens of missile strikes, according to Defense One.