Airpower: Harnessing the Power of Drone Swarms in Combat

air power asia, JP Joshi, Drones, Indian Air Force, Security, Anil Chopra

The State of the Indian Air Force (IAF)

Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhri on assuming the office of Chief of Air Staff on September 30th last year had in his first media interaction stated that the IAF presently has 30 fighter squadrons.  The Chief further stated that “Our count will remain around 35 till the next decade, currently it is unlikely it will go up any further,” This is against the authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons. Experts believe that there is a possibility that numbers may dip even below the 30 fighter squadron levels, with the planned phase-out of the obsolete aircraft types. Higher costs of manned aircraft, real-life acquisition procedures & import challenges, delays in indigenous programmes and shrinking defence budgets have all contributed to this depletion in the IAF squadron strengths. Geo-political situation in the region, accentuated even further with the war in Ukraine, warrants fresh thinking in the employment of airpower assets. A two-front war, in this new and emerging geopolitical reality, with depleted airpower assets, will be extremely challenging and warrants immediate attention. Depletion in operational air assets due to obsolescence and lack of new platforms demands an immediate review and rethink on our dependence on manned aircraft for all roles of combat airpower. Two recent demonstrations based on indigenous drone technology may have some answers that merit further exploitation.

Beating the Retreat, 2022. Image Source: Daily Excelsior

Beating the Retreat, 2022

The first was the dazzling 10 minutes display of 1000 indigenous drones at the Beating the Retreat ceremony provided a spectacular finale to the Republic Day celebrations, 2022. The drones flew in different formations, making a 3-D shape of the rotating globe, the map of India, the image of the ‘Father of the Nation’, ‘Make in India’ lion, and the tricolour; all in multiple colours. This display was hosted by Botlab Dynamics, supported by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and the Department of Science and Technology. Only the US, Russia and China have thus far demonstrated a capability to put up a show with 1000 drones. The exhibited capabilities could easily be focused, refined and exploited to carry out defensive and offensive missions by the military.

Army day parade, 2021, Drone Swarm. Image Source: rediff.com

Army Day Parade, 2021

The second was the 75 indigenously designed and developed asymmetric drone swarm demonstration on the occasion of the Army day parade, 2021. Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled drones to carry out offensive missions and close air support tasks during the demonstration. Although this was not under combat conditions, the success of the pre-planned demonstration at such an important event points to the confidence of the demonstrators, as also points to a certain level of maturity in the employed technology. The army’s drone swarming capability is under development for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief roles and is being developed by the army in partnership with a Bengaluru-based start-up NewSpace Research and Technologies. While it seems the 2022 demonstration employed drones under centralised control, the 2021 demonstration employed drones in the “autonomous” mode.

Bengaluru-based start-up NewSpace Research and Technologies. Image Source: Company

Drones, UAVs, UASs

The drone is a generic term given to any unmanned aerial platform, which is variously called as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or as Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). It has been used by the military, remotely controlled by a ground operator in the initial days. With the advancement of information and communications technology (ICT), the trend now is more towards automatic, and increasingly towards autonomous, even though there are some ethical issues that are still being deliberated upon, internationally. Drones were used singly in the early days, graduating on to ‘massed’ drone usage employing centralised control. Massed drones have been used in the past; the successful attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities (Sep 2019), and the Russian airbase in Khmeimim (Jan 2018). These attacks demonstrated the challenges associated with defending high-value targets, as also countering massed drone attacks.

Drone attacks on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria. Image Source: CNN

Evolution of Warfare over the Ages

Warfare has evolved from “melee”, to “mass”, to “manoeuvre”, and now, thanks to ICT, it is becoming possible to use “swarm”; a technique where-in a target can be attacked from any direction by using drones as part of an autonomous drone swarm; where-in each drone communicates and collaborates with the rest to carry out co-ordinated tasks to achieve shared objectives. There is no leader, and the decision making is distributed, as found in the swarms in nature. A flock of Starlings, called a murmuration, is one of the examples of a swarm that we are envisaging. A large murmuration can have thousands of starlings flying together; the birds seem like they are connected to each other, twisting, turning, changing direction and performing complex manoeuvres while in flight. These are not pre-meditated/ planned or practised in advance, but are a part of their inherent nature/ behaviour. Scientists have been studying murmuration to find out the science behind the same. Although much remains to be found, scientists believe that these systems are “on the edge”; ready to be completely transformed in an instant, much like boiling water transforms into steam. High-speed computers and cameras have been aids to understand this wonder of nature. Artificial life, a field of study wherein researchers examine systems related to natural life through the use of simulations with computer models and robotics, has helped exploit this phenomenon to a great extent.

A flock of Starlings called a murmuration. Image Source: countrylife.co.uk

Boids, or a Bird Like an Object

Boids, short for “bird-oid object” or a bird-like object, is an artificial life programme developed by Craig Reynolds in 1986, which simulates the above behaviour of birds. The complexity arises because of the interaction of individual Boids within the group; each one adhering to a set of simple rules. The rules that apply in a simple Boid are as follows: –

  • Separation – steer to maintain separation from group mates, avoiding collisions
  • Alignment – steer towards the average heading of the group mates
  • Cohesion – steer towards the average position of group mates

More complex rules can be added, such as obstacle avoidance, splitting/ regrouping, target seeking, or any other emergent behaviour, depending on envisaged mission requirements. Advancement in Artificial intelligence (AI) is making it possible for the drones, suitably programmed, to work together and execute complex military missions without the need for in-flight human intervention. As can be visualised, countering such drone swarms would be much more challenging than the previously mentioned massed drones.

Drone Swarms

Drone swarms are defined as “multiple unmanned platforms and/or weapons deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behaviour based on communication with one another.” Real-time information from drones carrying electro-optical/ infra-red/ electro-magnetic sensors with regards to targets, defences, weather can be relayed, and the swarm can alter course or designate a suitably configured drone to jam, strike, or self destructs, as per the pre-programmed objectives of the mission. Real-time information can help in search and strike roles for mobile close air support or battlefield air interdiction targets over an expected extended battlefield area. While stationary targets can be engaged with artillery, mobile targets have always posed a challenge. A drone swarm could easily undertake the above airpower missions that have hitherto fore been undertaken by multiple and scarce manned aircraft resources, in the ISR and attack roles. Drone swarms have the advantage of having the sensors and shooters in the same swarm, all of them communicating with each other, and acting on real-time intelligence that is simultaneously being gathered. An asymmetric mix of drones could also be utilised, depending on mission requirements, with each configured for a particular role. This has been practically displayed in New Delhi, during Army day 2021. A display of such capability is the first step to its evaluation from an operational standpoint and gainful employment in the future, augmenting the already depleted manned aircraft strength.

Advantages of Drone Swarms

Drones with their lower costs, greater numbers, and flexibility in employment can help alleviate the pressure on the depleted manned aircraft numbers. Also, the absence of humans onboard can help operational planners take higher risks and validate an even more daring concept of operations. Greater numbers also help in challenging the enemy’s defensive systems, and as a consequence, degrading their defensive capability. The biggest advantage is that drones are being developed indigenously by the public as well as private players. The drones being designed and developed indigenously provides flexibility in both aspects; the drones can be designed to be modular, and need not be multi-role; the sensors and weapons can be configured to be line replaceable units, which can be replaced on the launch sites, based on mission requirements.

Drones for Security and surveillance. Image Source: ecuritymagazine.com

Harnessing the Power of Drone Swarms

Harnessing the power of swarming will demand new models of Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). These should ideally be joint service projects, as they will need to cater for the requirements of all services simultaneously, from the field level to the highest operational control levels of each service. It would also be pertinent to mention that autonomous systems like the drone swarms would need to be commanded to do a mission, rather than controlled through each step of the execution. Thus the importance of the right kind of personnel mix in the new joint service combat organisation; from AI specialists to those focused on the study of mass, mobility, and fire to neutralise varied targets, to communication and computer professionals, to those proficient in basic drone warfare – specialised in launching/ recovering the drone swarms, etc. This would demand a paradigm shift from the way manned combat squadrons are presently staffed. The commercial sector could have ideas that need to be suitably modified and adapted to suit specific combat requirements.

Drones for C4ISR. Image Source: Northrop Grumman

Military Drones – Future of Warfare?

It is a fact that innovations in commercial drones are rapidly driving many of the underlying technologies; these could form the foundation on which military drones could be built; military drones would need to be hardened such that they are better equipped to operate in an environment that would be prone to jamming, interference, hijacking and deception. The software would also need to cater for splitting/ regrouping, to present an appropriate radar cross-section, which helps paint on radar or to avoid radar detection. Will this be too expensive to operationalise for military use is a question that will decide its induction, deployment and employability? It is of interest to note that most warfare analysts believe that the future of warfare is “small, smart, and cheap platforms”. Considering that drone swarms offer significant operational advantages, “significant cost benefits”, and flexibility, it would be worthwhile to invest substantial sums of money in research and development, trials, and experimenting with this hypothesis. This is already being done in many nations, including the US, China, Israel and India. Each of these nations is in the process of finding a way to operationalise the significant technologies that are envisioned to be the “future of warfare” – unmanned. Swarming is a concept that can be most gainfully employed in a networked or an ambiguous battlefield, like in counter-insurgency and built-up areas.

First Known Use of Drone Swarms

Israeli Defence forces were the first military to have used drone swarms to locate, identify and attack militants in the Gaza strip during the May 2021 conflict with Hamas, as reported by the New Scientist. Hamas had fired 4300 rockets into Israel over the 11 days of conflict in which 256 people were killed in Gaza and 13 in Israel. Israel had retaliated with airstrikes and artillery. Drone swarms too were used to locate and destroy rocket launchers and other targets under camouflage conditions, amidst populated built-up areas that were being used by Hamas. No ground forces were employed to take on the Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Drones Usage – Army at the Forefront

The Indian Army has been leading in this field of development, as their experience with operations in war and counter-insurgency have underscored the pressing need for ISR operations. It is also felt by the Army that since battles are won only with boots on the ground, the IAF must play a “supporting role” and help achieve objectives that are critical to the progress of the battle on the ground. Airpower professionals on the other hand are convinced that the army/ navy can be best helped by achieving some degree of air superiority, thus preventing enemy airpower from interfering with own operations on ground, sea and air, at a time and place of our choosing. Counter air thus receives the initial focus of airpower practitioners, and rightly so, as only enemy airpower has the capability to interfere with any of our own operations, be they on the ground, at sea or in the air. Both are correct, based on their service perspective and this has been a legacy bone of contention between most airpower practitioners and foot soldiers, all across the world, leading to demands for separate air forces for the army and navy, which they can employ at their discretion. This neutralises the basic airpower philosophy of ‘centralised control and decentralised execution, as the inherent flexibility of an aircraft to swing between targets, weapon types, roles, etc gets sacrificed. The depleted numbers of aircraft with the IAF would further lead to it being hard-pressed to undertake all missions and roles envisaged for airpower, even more so in a two-front scenario.

A Suggested Way Forward

Suitably hardened drones can be inducted for airpower roles closer to the border. These can alleviate some of the pressure on manned airpower assets. Simple, low-cost drones that are presently available in the commercial market may also, after combat hardening, fill capability gaps, as small, tactical drones and drone swarms to provide the needed close-air support, reconnaissance and battlefield air interdiction, in collaboration/ co-ordination with the artillery. Some of the operations where small drone swarms could be employed may include anti-personnel, trench operations, mine laying, forward “helibase/ airfield attacks (soft targets like aircraft, fuel vehicles, etc. in airfields), attacks against forwarding ammunition dumps, radar and communication antennae, command and control nodes, vulnerable points on naval ships, heavily guarded installations, etc. These targets require only a small amount of explosive placed at the vulnerable point to make them dysfunctional or destroy them.” Suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and Electronic warfare (EW) are two other missions that can be undertaken by drones, either as part of a swarm or in partnership with manned aircraft. Drones swarms represent a major technological advancement, which could help overcome some of the shortcomings of manned aircraft, as also augment their depleted strength.

Core Joint Service Group

The army has already taken a lead in this field, as demonstrated on Army Day 2021, and is known to be “investing heavily into AI, autonomous weapon systems, quantum technologies and robotics to achieve a convergence between its war-fighting philosophies and military attributes of these technologies”. While this is commendable, it would be ideal if a core joint service group could be formed with members from all three services. The group could be funded and tasked to come up with a time-bound plan on the best organisational setup for such drone combat units; standardised drones for different roles; software; different kinds of weapons; ideal swarm sizes needed; hardening needed; customisation needed, based on missions; and the mix of drones needed to carry out airpower roles, initially within about 50 km from the forward line of battle. Basic artificial intelligence software could be developed, over which mission programming could be integrated, specific to every mission. Drone warfare challenges are likely to be organisational, as it demands a flat hierarchical culture, more jointness, robust C4ISR, secure data centres and data sharing. The services presently operate in a steep hierarchical structure and culture. Interoperability between the services would also likely be a key issue. The experience gained by the core group can then help expand the ambit of drone swarms, as experience is gained in design, software, size, weaponry, sensors, launch, platforms, C4I, joint service organisation, etc.

The Future of Warfare

It is the author’s belief that the future of warfare is in unmanned vehicles, although it is also very clear that manned aircraft and unmanned vehicles will continue to co-exist for many decades to come. A large investment in these technologies would pay rich dividends financially, as well as militarily, as all these technologies are leading edge and dual-use. Lastly, a joint service approach would pay rich dividends in employing these “future” technologies in combat, as interoperability between the services would be crucial to gaining synergy in combat.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in the USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image Source: PV2 James Newsome

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

2 thoughts on “Airpower: Harnessing the Power of Drone Swarms in Combat

  1. Declaration of war becomes obsolete. War as a term ceases to exist. It shape-shifts into terrorism. State sponsored or individually sponsored it comes down to it’s transformation to terrorism. Once one excludes soldier from the battlefield; human and political price of every single lost one, corporate goals overwrite national goals. All out conflict becomes constant threat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Think. There is absolutely no gains for Russia to be that careless when it comes to civilian casualties. There is however great gain for the other side if Russia is portrayed as a monster. We had that kind of an approach in our own bloodbath. Unfortunately a whole town was sucrificed because of such ways of thinking. Unfortunately it did created desired effect. This must be allowed to happen again. Sucrificed people to serve as a leverage.
    There can be and probably there is a set of missed targets causing some of the urban area damage. Yet some of legitimate military targets are more then likely placed there for that exact reason. Draw more fire into civilian areas and create propaganda effect. Tools of war. Encircled cities however are being destroyed by Russia. There is no doubt. It is a siege. Disgusting ways of conducting war and this sickenes any true soldier. (So I say stop that shit.Encircle and move on. Or just admit you’re way over your head on this one. ) Yet some of these highly publicised attacks in civilian areas are most likely not done by Russian forces. There is more then two sides in that war.
    Personally my opinion is this war should’ve been stopped moments after it’s primary offensive was proven to be ineffective. What continued was and still is is the type of reasoning well if we back down we basically surrender to the West.
    Hence it is stalling. Command is pushing it. Russian soldiers are stalling it. It is time for command to join them.
    They became aware of it’s pointlessness. It is just a matter of avoiding excessive obviousness that is prolonging this conflict. Their way of waging war is all but obsolete.
    Comand and control digital structure needed to lead a militarily successful campaign does not exist on the lower levels. Their overall strength is just like paper tiger.
    Looks big but ain’t. This can be seen as a self destruction of Russian Army as was. It’s real strength is more of a barrely sufficient force, highly demoralised by now, to even defend mother Russia from all possible foreign endangerments.
    Corruption lead to it. Although they never posed a serious threat conventionally to Western alies. Not even back in a day when West portrayed them as their main and most dangerous enemy. It is not technology that makes them weak conventionally. It is inefficient Comand and control systems.
    Su25 and Mi28 are the perfect aircrafts to provide CAS. This however can only work if one achieved air dominance. Which they haven’t.
    It is not just airforce it is needed to tackle and put out of effective action. Sam batteries must be eliminated as well.
    They haven’t managed to do that. Airforce is more then number of planes. It is highly complicated force to make efficient. They haven’t managed to do that. Ever really. They have no true stealth to create such a shock’n’awe effect. Even US needed long period of time to truly knock out any threats from the ground to their airforce when preparing land assaults.
    Afghanistan was the best proof of Russian crude and ill placed looking at those matters. Us learned from Vietnam. They the Russians learned nothing from Afghanistan. Hence their Army in Ukraine is all but defeated. They can even possibly in the end take the East of Ukraine but they cannot effectively hold it for a longer period of time. Hence militarily their victory is impossible to achieve. The classic way. This however is modern warfare in which political aims matter more when overall definition of a victory is determined. Vietnam. Us won every battle yet the war was lost. Russia lost every battle so far yet they can still win by saying we destroyed effective military might of Ukrainian army and militants (this is very welcomed) possibly even prevented them from joining Nato. Any use of non conventional weapons is admitting ultimate defeat. This must not happen.
    Ukraine must join nato to truly win this war. Cleverly though.
    Step by step. Let Russia destroy themselves militarily and then just proceed as stated. Join Nato. But do not allow foreign forces on your land. And balance will return.

    Not my opinion. Just a bias free analysis. I actually have nothing against Russia except for huge number of civilians being killed in their campaign. Their premiss is the same as those carried out by US all throughout these decades.

    Like

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