From the Bible’s Old Testament, the Book of Revelations 9:1 – 12, comes the ominous verse, “…Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”
Hordes of locusts have ravaged the crops in many countries over the years, coming in “Swarms,” reminiscent of the verse above, causing immense destruction. More recently the ‘S’ word is ‘metamorphically’ and analogously associated with the revolutionary impact of drones, in the ambit of the battlefield.
The history of UAVs
Strange as it may seem, the advent of the drone or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) goes back to the era when powered flight was evolving, with the Wright brothers. Progressively, in many forms, these unmanned platforms have been used for many purposes, most infamously, of course, as the dreaded V-1 and V-2 flying bombs of the Germans in WW II.
While manned flight took the fancy of the human race, the unmanned vehicle had to take a back seat, but started to surface as the power of Air Defence was felt by fighter and bomber aircraft in the subsequent conflicts and the attrition that accrued. Rapidly developing technology progressively made the manned fighter a prohibitively expensive module, the loss of which would cost any nation dear.
Technologically assisted by miniaturisation and satellites, the natural progression of UAVs came in the field of ISR, as the first probes into the battlefield with drones piloted remotely (to recollect, the term RPV or Remotely Piloted Vehicle preceded the term UAV), permitted the Commander to “see what’s over the hill”. The keen interest evinced to promote UAVs has in fact led to a huge debate on the pros and cons of unmanned aerial warfare as against manned fighters.
The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into this domain further strengthened the hands of those rooting for unmanned aerial warfare. While the manned fighter has moved towards another level of stealth and super-cruise, provided by 5th Generation technology, the unmanned vehicles seem to have captured the domain of the tactical battlefield.
Is the UAV the new RMA? The perception of the traditional battlefield has certainly been revolutionised, nay transformed. The fact that the battlefield can remain virtually under perpetual surveillance has permitted the Commanders to take finite decisions in a well-considered matrix. This has certainly been a game-changer and has raised the stakes of the field operators.
Many believe, as do I, the USA is constantly at war or involved in a conflict because it gives them an opportunity to live to test the weapons that are being evolved. Operation Desert Storm provided a platform for a series of opportunities like the F-117 ‘Nighthawk’ stealth fighter and the B-2 ‘Spirit’ stealth bomber, while, post 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom has offered them not only the Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB) but the development of the UAV into a redoubtable killing machine.
The hostile terrain of Afghanistan and the elusive Taliban necessitated the ISR to be persistent, intelligence sharing (to identify key leadership) near-instantaneous, precision targeting under limited finite time frames, all contributed to the growth of the Predator and Reaper and a new acronym was coined – UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle). MALE and HALE were no longer terms of physiology but rather, warfare.
Dean F Wilson, a life-maker and lecturer, made a profound statement when he said, “The sting of a bee is worst in a swarm”. The analogy applied to mini-UAVs has had some telling effect on adversaries. Anticipating drone attacks, the Russians deployed their best AD systems at their Air Force base in Khammiem and their Naval base at Tartus in Syria, as far back as 2017. Sure enough, in December 2018 and January 2019, there were protracted attacks by drones on these two bases.
While countered and repulsed to a large degree, the UAVs did cause some damage but brought to the fore the fact that belligerent forces, highly outweighed in asymmetry, could resort to attacking superior forces through these means and cause attrition. For the first time, drones in swarms were seen in action (although drone swarms had undergone testing since 2016).
Taking advantage of the fact that adequate response and defence mechanisms do not exist to thwart a well planned, coordinated saturation attack (similar to those done by manned fighters), a certain percentage of the swarm will always penetrate the defences. This was adequately demonstrated a few months after the Khammiem & Tartus attacks, in September 2019, when drone swarms attacked ARAMCO’s oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais with telling effect.
The infusion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into drone warfare has literally weaponised AI, changing the dynamics of conflict and catapulting the drone as the master of the tactical battlefield. The fact that as time goes by the controller (pilot) who had initially moved from close proximity to thousands of miles away, thanks to satellite relay, will be further relieved of his tasks as ‘autonomous swarms’ move to assess their targets, divide up tasks and execute them independently, devoid of human input. Two observations may provide an interesting insight:-
Lewis Thomas in 1984 commented that ‘a multitude of bees can tell the time of day, calculate the geometry of the sun’s position and argue about the best location for the next swarm. Bees do a lot of observing of other bees; maybe they know what follows stinging and do it anyway.’
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, marvelled at the power of locusts to act as a unified, indomitable force—a lesson that might serve human beings well. (Was it a prophetic allusion to the present drone swarms, I wonder?)
Forming an integral partner in network-centric warfare, drone swarms constitute an important element in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) force, using their numbers to saturate and clutter radar scopes, their minimalistic radar and aural signatures to penetrate airspace and their ability to execute precision attacks, either ‘kamikaze’ or by suitably adapted weapons, to cause serious damage to the enemy, especially their leadership and/or centres of gravity. Already operating, are drones that are able to successfully share information, allocate jobs and make coordinated tactical decisions against pre-programmed threats.
Countering this new threat has given rise to a new dimension in the Air Defence matrix. Weapons such as drone guns, anti-drone missiles, electromagnetic jammers, sky-nets and other defence measures are being tried and tested. A drone swarm attack on an airbase is a frightening thought. Soft skinned targets abound and hardened shelters would scant provide the intended protection against a ‘smart’ swarm.
While there is no real experience of drone swarms against peer adversaries, there is no denying the fact that the domain of warfare and kinetic confrontation has undergone a transformation, thrown into an era of EMS (Electro-Magnetic Spectrum) and EWS (Electronic Warfare Systems). While the dimension of warfare has not changed, the ideology of conduct has been redefined.