Swarming UAV’s and a new way of war

It’s perhaps inane to talk about a ‘new way of war’, because war has been with us for as long as the human race has inhabited this planet, and probably will be until we’ve become extinct.  Nevertheless, the ways in which we learn more about the enemy, and fight him, have improved along with technology.

It looks as if drones (in this case, unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV’s) are about to provide another.  Military.com reports:

The Navy will launch its first at-sea “air show” of dozens of drones swarming in formation late next month, officials with the Office of Naval Research said Friday.

The demo will feature more than 30 Raytheon-built Coyote unmanned aircraft systems launched in rapid succession and flying in formations, thanks to ONR’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST).

At $15,000 per unit, the drones are cheap enough to be expendable if needed and, launched at high numbers, they can overwhelm enemy forces while requiring little human supervision.

ONR wrapped up a series of land tests this week with an experiment at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, where 31 of the 12-14 pound Coyotes were tube-launched in approximately 40 seconds and proceeded to conduct a series of swarm formations and maneuvers …

The swarming technology allows the drones to relate to each other spatially and fly their swarm formations with minimal human direction or intervention, which Mastroianni noted is key for practical and efficient unmanned technology that decreases the warfighter’s burden.

“We have an operator that’s monitoring it, keeping eyes on what’s going on, and can reach in and change things if they want to,” he said. “But the reality is, [the drones are] flying themselves, they’re performing their mission and the operator’s supervisory. So it tremendously reduces the workload to be able to control large numbers of UAVs.”

The swarm can expend enemy resources by drawing fire or safely conduct tasks such as intelligence-gathering or jamming communications that might otherwise be accomplished with manned aircraft.

There’s more at the link.

I note that the video of the land-based demonstration, above, did not use the little Coyote aircraft, but larger, lower-cost UAV’s instead – presumably because they’re designed to be used multiple times, making it much cheaper to repeat the tests.  The more expensive (and more capable) Coyotes will probably be used in the shipborne tests.  I understand some small UAV’s (possibly including future models of the Coyote) will be capable of being launched from aircraft (e.g. the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon) and helicopters (e.g. the SH-60 Seahawk) through sonobuoy tubes, making them very versatile.  That capability has been under development for some years.

When this technology is perfected, it’ll be able to cover a very large area with a swarm of autonomous, networked UAV’s, working together to detect anything worth finding in the area, then (if necessary) either attack it themselves or designate it for attack by weapons sent into the area by another launching platform (e.g. a ship or an aircraft).  This means that, for example, an air defense zone thick with anti-aircraft radars and missiles, that could not be penetrated safely by manned aircraft or (very expensive) high-end UAV’s, could nevertheless be neutralized by sending in a swarm of these little robots.  They could find and mark every missile and radar site for a strike by missiles launched from outside the range of the air defenses, clearing the way for larger, more expensive (and therefore less expendable) strike aircraft or UAV’s to pass through it to reach their targets.

I suppose this is a technological implementation of a long-standing fictional idea.

I wonder how long it’ll be before someone names one of these little UAV’s a ‘Crebain‘?



  1. I wonder if these could be developed into anti-missile defense? A swarm would be dropped from a plane at a missile that was tracking it and would calculate a self-destruct for when the missile flew through their formation.

  2. I've always thought this was a logical next step in drones. Its actually something that could probably be implemented by civilian ones too and a swarm of drones would be very difficult for an event or VIP security team to counter and you'd only need one drone carrying a hand grenade to explode in the right place and your political rally or street protest just became a blood bath. A swarm might also make it possible to assassinate the speaker.

    Although it should be noted that the USN probably knows how to counter such a swarm too. That's what a laser would be great at.

  3. @dingus: If you're planning on using grenades, I doubt you'd need a swarm of drones to get them to a street protest. Even a political rally will probably not have the sort of security to prevent a grenade attack on the crowd.

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