For the uninitiated, Michael Crichton is a writer whose stories are science fiction but border on reality or something visible in the foreseeable future – the near horizon. The author uses his past expertise in computer science and computer technology to capture the reader’s imagination in gripping tales, fast-paced with fascinating storylines, which make for some interesting Hollywood films. Among a host of books are “Jurassic Park”, “The Andromeda Strain”, “The Lost World”, “Congo” and “Airframe”, to name but a few.
Having just finished reading another exciting book by him, called “Micro”, it triggered not only curiosity but provided some valuable inputs for future warfare. With a microbiology/ computer technology storyline, a burglar attempting to steal scientific data from a super-secretive laboratory suddenly feels tiny insect bites on his face and body, which increase to ripping off his shirt followed by profuse bleeding from innumerable cuts and lacerations, finally leading to his death by haemorrhaging.
The book ultimately reveals that a security system (of course, insidiously tweaked for disaster) had been set up which would be activated by sensors and release micro-bots (micro-robots) who could sense the presence of the intruder(s) and would attack him(them) in swarms, each micro-bot armed with scythe-like razor-sharp blades, slashing at the target, each cut tearing skin, very much like a mosquito bite or wasp sting, but far more lethal.
Having read about the emergence of miniature UAVs and then micro UAVs (MAVs), it becomes very evident where science is heading and how the military can capitalise from technology to drive not only its programs but also tactics and innovative trends in warfare. Miniature quad-rotor UAVs are now in regular use, not only in military application but extensively by the police and para-military elements around the world, in traffic management, disaster relief operations, security and surveillance as well as for crowd control management. What started as a toy has developed into an extremely versatile and efficient tool to the uniformed fraternity.
Micro UAVs in the form of ‘Black Hornet’ made in the UK and the CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) of the USA had evinced interest around the globe for their penetrative capability into enemy territory to glean intelligence and provide real-time inputs while exhibiting very high survivability capability.
But what has caught the world’s interest is the recent news of the successful carriage and release from an F-18 fighter, of 103 Perdix drones which form up into a “swarm” to carry out a designated mission. The Perdix drone is an experimental project conducted by the Strategic Capabilities Office of the U.S. Dept of Defence. Designed by students of MIT and adapted by the DoD for its use, the 1 lb., 6 inches Perdix drone’s fuselage is made of low-drag Kevlar composite.
Spring-loaded folding carbon-fibre wings, elevon control surfaces, pusher propeller powered by a lithium-polymer battery pack, the palm-sized drone looks cute and innocent enough. But look deeper – the Perdix drone is programmed to operate not individually but in a “swarm” of Perdix(es), like a collective organism with a ‘life’ of its own (virtually). They have been programmed with what is called ‘a distributed brain’ giving them an ability to make decisions, operate in a ‘leaderless’ group, adapting to each other, to additions and attrition, to retain a homogeneous objective to complete the stated mission.
Taking a holistic perspective, the “Pentagon’s future battle network” has immense potential and offers infinite variations/ variables. From low altitude tactical reconnaissance to tactical ELINT, to base/formation security, to assassination missions, they would also be an asset in support of Special Forces. What if they could be armed with some specialised micro-weapons? A frightening thought. Operating in a “swarm” with programmed “hive mentality”, their lethality can best be reminiscent of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock horror movie “The Birds” and the 1978 disaster-horror movie “Swarm” starring Michael Caine.
Both films took a peek into the consequences of a possible eco-biological imbalance in birds, in the first instance and bees in the latter case, which triggers volatile behaviour, in fact making them brutal killing machines (hordes). In both cases, the civil administration was unable to cope with the situation and the military had to step in. I think we are looking at a revolution in military warfare.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.