Drone Wars - You Haven't Seen Anything Yet

News Image By PNW Staff May 08, 2023
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Last week's drone attack on the Kremlin is but the latest example of how drones are being used in modern warfare.  While the objectives of the attack are still unclear, some are suggesting it was an attempted assassination of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With multiple parties blaming one another for the attack, it shows how easy it can be to hide one's identity during a drone attack.  The US has denied Russian claims it masterminded the attack while Ukraine has not only denied being responsible for the attack but suggested it was staged by Russia itself in order to escalate the war.

While this particular attack seemed more targeted to a general location where Putin might be residing, more specific personal attacks with drones are probably coming in the near future. Drone technology merged with advanced facial recognition capabilities is already here and only a matter of time until it is perfected and executed.

Single strike attacks are only one element of the new drone warfare.  Several militaries have been working on developing Artificial Intelligence that allows the drones to work together without the need for an operator. The machine learning system is fed with data sourced from satellites, other reconnaissance drones, and aerial vehicles, as well as intelligence collected by ground units.

The basic idea of a drone swarm is that its machines are able to make decisions among themselves. The swarm continues its mission, even if it loses some drones during its mission.  Some reports indicate that China has successfully tested a swarm of one thousand drones. And China appears to be interested in swarm capability as a method of attacking US aircraft carriers.

Several test simulations by the US Navy have shown that drone swarms are consistently able to get past ship defenses that are geared towards shooting down single planes. This weakness means it makes sense to attack an enemy ship with a large number of cheap drones rather than one missile costing the same.

Ironically, the best counter to drone swarm attacks being studied is a defensive drone swarm that can intercept the offensive ones, thus creating a virtual drone swarm war.

One reason drone swarms are applauded as a weapon of the future is the ability of drones to be fully customized. Need a swarm to have the capability to break open windows and enter a building? Easily done. Need a swarm to contain thermal-equipped 'surveillance units' who watch from overhead while attack drones move in? Done.

As Zak Kallenborn - analyst for the Research Affiliate at the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism - states: the ability to insert drones of differing capabilities within a swarm and the choice of omnidirectional attack are very real possibilities.

"I expect a global conversation to emerge on the limits of drone swarm technology," says Kallenborn. "States may begin to classify drone swarms as weapons of mass destruction, due to the combination of mass harm and lack of controllability."  

One such project is the pentagon's AMASS (Autonomous Multi-Domain Adaptive Swarms-of-Swarms) project, which would represent automated warfare on an unprecedented scale.

Thousands of drones would strike by air, land and water to destroy enemy defenses - but experts fear humans could lose control of the 'swarms.'

AMASS is still in the planning stages, but DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) has been collecting bids from suppliers for the $78 million contract.

Small drones would be equipped with weapons and tools for navigation and communication, along with abilities ranging from radar jamming to launching lethal attacks.

While the technology would change how the US goes to war, experts in the industry raise concerns.

Speaking on a panel at Cornell last year, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko said: 'Drones can aid, they can watch, and they can kill.'

'In theory, AMASS could be entirely non-lethal, carrying out jamming or other non-kinetic attacks in support of other platforms that actually destroy the defenses,' said Kallenborn.

The AMASS project's development would involve experiments with both real and virtual drone swarms, then gradually increasing their size and complexity.

According to DARPA federal contract documents, 'AMASS will create the ability to dynamically command and control (C2) unmanned, autonomous swarms of various types (i.e., swarms-of-swarms) with a common C2 language.'

DARPA said the swarms will be assigned 'through an optimization process that considers mission objectives, priorities, risks, resource availability, swarm capabilities, and timing.'

A DARPA spokesperson told the SWNS that the aim is to keep humans making key decisions, with drones waiting for permission to act if communications fail.

According to the US Department of Defense's policy on autonomous weapons (known as Directive 3000.09): 'Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems will be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.'

But Kallenborn is skeptical: 'As the swarm grows in size, it'll become virtually impossible for humans to manage the decisions. Autonomy and AI will be needed to make those decisions.

A massive drone swarm prone to errors would be a terrifying thing - a new weapon of mass destruction.'

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