Raytheon has produced a number of publicity videos for its proposed high energy laser weapon. They obviously showcase the company’s products, but they also provide insight into what the battlefield of the future may well look like. From an economic perspective, they demonstrate how both attack and defense are dealing with the application of so-called “swarm intelligence” to drones and unmanned vehicles.
First, this brief video showing Raytheon’s current product offering. I apologize in advance for the damnfool music soundtrack the company added to the clip – why, I have no idea. It would have been far better without it. I suggest watching with the sound turned off.
Next, this concept video showing how that technology could be applied on the battlefield. Note the swarms of enemy drones. Ditto on the soundtrack.
The threat from such drones is demonstrably real, despite the refusal of some readers of this blog to admit that (see the comments to earlier articles here on that subject). That’s why Raytheon and other companies are spending so much on developing this technology to defend against them. As the Atlantic recently pointed out, “Drone Swarms Are Going to Be Terrifying and Hard to Stop“.
… a new National Academy of Sciences report suggests that small, consumer-grade drones could be used in swarms to effectively attack American infantry with onboard bombs.
“Contrary to the past, when U.S. warfighters may have found improvised explosive devices, now the improvised explosive devices will find our warfighters,” the report concludes.
. . .
And these drones appeared substantially less sophisticated and maneuverable than a DJI Phantom 4, the leading consumer drone.
The National Academy notes that most of the counterstrategies that the Army has developed are “based on jamming radio frequency and GPS signals.” The thinking was: Drones needed those information flows to navigate effectively. Cut them off and you neutralize the attack. But, as more decision-making intelligence gets baked into groups of these systems, those techniques will become less effective. “Recently marketed sUASs [small unmanned aerial systems] have technological enhancements (e.g., obstacle avoidance and target-following technologies) that support autonomous flying with no need for a control link or access to GPS,” the report states.
And “kinetic” defenses—that means bullets and explosives—might also run into some problems with swarms of tiny aircraft. “Kinetic counters, such as shooting down a single, highly dynamic, fast-moving, low-flying hobby aircraft with small arms (rifles, shotguns, and light machine guns), are extremely difficult due to the agility and small size of sUASs,” the report states. “Additionally, swarming sUASs can be employed to overwhelm most existing kinetic countermeasures.”
There’s more at the link.
What it boils down to is that, as they get much cheaper and more ubiquitous, an attacker can launch a swarm of autonomous drones at a target for a very small outlay in money and infrastructure. They will no longer require external guidance; once programmed to look for a target, and given its approximate location, they’ll mindlessly keep on coming until either they, or the target, no longer exists.
That also means that traditional defenses are no longer adequate. Firearms can’t react fast enough to shoot down large numbers of incoming targets that are hard to hit. What’s more, the rounds they will have to fire in large numbers to bring down the attacking drones will also pose a threat to their own forces. Anti-aircraft shrapnel falling back to earth caused many casualties during World War II. That hasn’t changed. Modern active protection systems used on tanks have the same problem; they might knock down an incoming missile, but their explosion might also kill or injure your own infantry that are too close to the vehicle. This photograph (courtesy of Next Big Future) of a test of Israel’s Trophy APS demonstrates the problem. The explosion in the lower frame isn’t the missile, but the anti-missile system. Anyone standing too close would not be happy.
There’s also the cost factor. An anti-aircraft missile, even a small one, is expensive, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars apiece. If you have a swarm of, say, a hundred drones incoming, each costing about a thousand dollars, the attack force will cost about $100,000 in all. To destroy them all, you’ll need at least 150 missiles (because some will miss their targets, and require a second shot). If they cost as much as, say, a FIM-92 Stinger missile (said by Wikipedia to be $38,000 apiece, the cheapest such weapon in the US arsenal), that comes to a total of $5.7 million to defeat the attack. If another swarm arrives shortly thereafter, and another, and another . . . the defenders will run out of money and missiles long before the attacker can no longer afford drones! Once conventional defenses fail, the target will be destroyed by follow-up attacks.
The only defense that will be economic enough to deploy in affordable quantities will be something like a laser beam. Note that Raytheon shows its device mounted on all-terrain vehicles, very small and light, as well as larger military vehicles. They can be dispatched by road, or brought in by helicopter or aircraft. They can be easily and quickly deployed around the perimeter of a military base, even a temporary one, or placed at intervals down the length of a road convoy. They will have their own generators, and won’t need reloading – as long as they have power, they can shoot. Each shot will cost pennies, not dollars. They’re just about the only practical way for present-day technology to defeat a drone swarm attack.
The lasers shown in those Raytheon videos are not yet deployed on a large scale. Others are still under development. Fortunately, drone swarms are also not as far advanced as the videos show . . . but that’s only a matter of time. China has already demonstrated a drone swarm of over 1,000 aircraft. It can’t be long before that technology is militarized.
Another scary aspect of this is, human beings won’t be in the loop once this is perfected. We react too slowly to take out a swarm of drones. We’ll have to rely on computers to fight them. The drones themselves will probably also be autonomous, able to act and react on their own. They may be told to secure a given area, and destroy anything moving in it. That might be a military vehicle, or a civilian family trying to get away from the conflict zone, or a farmer trying to harvest his crops . . . it won’t matter to the electronic “brains” involved. They’ve been programmed to destroy anything moving, so that’s what they’re going to do. That might even extend to non-mechanized movement, such as a pedestrian, or an animal walking. The electronics will have no conscience. They’ll just kill everything.
Welcome to modern warfare. Welcome to the non-fictional Skynet. It’s not going to be fun.