The United States Navy recently demonstrated what future warfare could look like. It test launched 103 micro drones from three fighter jets as a live demonstration of the capabilities of swarm technology.

A drones swarm is essentially a group of very large number of micro or mini drones that are controlled collectively by a human operator, but act autonomously within themselves. It is like a hive of bees, with all the bees geared towards a single, larger objective, but each individual unit acting or capable of acting on its own and in relation to other bees to meet that objective. Due to the significant number of drones that can form a part of any swarm, there is a considerable degree of autonomy that the swarm as a whole and individual drones can exercise in finding and engaging targets. Indeed the development of swarm technology is tied to the much larger issue of development of autonomous weapon systems. It would be impossible to develop practical and effective swarms without the development of at least a certain level of machine autonomy.

R. Shashank Reddy
R. Shashank Reddy is a research assistant at Carnegie India.

The military utility of swarm technology is obvious . First, there is the question of cost, or the lack of it. Small drones, even in large numbers, tend to be far cheaper than conventional, larger weapon systems. The Perdix system used in the recent US air force test, for example, has an off the shelf price of only a few thousand dollars. Indeed, most of these systems are based on existing, easily available, and extremely cheap civilian technology. This dramatically changes the operational cost-benefit analysis that military forces need to do. Second, a swarm is essentially unstoppable. It is capable of taking multiple hits and still keep operating. Its disaggregated nature makes it very difficult to destroy at one go, especially given the fact that current defence systems are designed to tackle individual targets.

Third, a single swarm can be used for multiple purposes. While a part of the swarm can be used for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, the rest can be used as offensive weapons at the same time. Even the nature of their offensive capabilities can differ widely, ranging from kamikaze style self destructing drones to jamming electronic signals. Fourth, autonomous swarm technology is terrain agnostic, in that it can be used on air, land and in water. In fact, the most significant use of this technology may be for naval purposes. Swarms of underwater drones could be potentially used for everything from laying and destroying mines to protecting warships and submarines, and the United States Navy has already demonstrated the capabilities of surface level autonomous boats.  

These  features have piqued the interest of a number of countries. The US Navy has an entire research programme dedicated to the development of autonomous swarms, titled “LOw Cost Unmanned aerial vehicle Swarming Technology”, or LOCUST. Russia is taking the threat of swarms seriously enough to actively develop anti-swarm technology, dubbed “Repellent”. And there are indications that the United Kingdom and China are also investing in indigenous swarm technology. There however seems to be no available news on whether India too is developing or planning on developing the same.

Technology has a way of fundamentally altering both the rules and notions of war. There is a new arms race taking shape, centred around three interconnected technologies: autonomous weapons; swarms; and cyber-warfare. Put together, these may make the nature of war in the 21st century as alien to us as the First World War was to the generals and soldiers of an earlier era.

This necessitates not only the development of these technologies but also the development of a new tactical mindset. The great armies of Europe went into World War I armed to the teeth with the latest military technology of the time, but with 19th century tactics, only to find everything they thought they knew about war destroyed within the first few days of the conflict. We may find ourselves in the same situation within the next few decades unless we update not only what technology we have but how we use it.

It is therefore imperative that India take note of the changing nature of war. Apart from working on the indigenous development of these technologies, the military needs to understand the impact of  swarm weapons on India’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Unless this happens quickly, India risks preparing for a 20th century war against 21st century armies.

This article was originally published in the Wire.