The brutal battlefield economics of “swarm warfare”

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.



  1. If you can turn on the drone swarm and tell the master drones their start location (UTM or digital GPS coordinates), then GPS or external navigation becomes superfluous. They'll fly by inertial navigation systems (INS). Swarm correction can adjust for INS drift, if there are external cues to look for (visual, IR, radar or RF). These drones are relatively slow speed, so their guidance doesn't need elaborate multi-term Kalman filtering, just old and reliable algorithms.

    Though experiment: where can you find a compact package with an INS, GPS, relatively good processor, and visual or other sensor inputs? The answer is a a cellphone made any time in the last 10-15 years.

    This was another unintended consequence of offshoring so much electronics production.

  2. I wonder if the answer to a drone swarm isn't another drone swarm. Your drone swarm's programming is to find drones that aren't "like me" and fly into them. The problem of things falling out of the sky doesn't go away, but if the invading swarm is armed or carrying explosives, making them crash far away is less of a problem.

    "Like me" can be done with low power transponders, like the old IFF systems (which live today as commercial aircraft transponders at 1030 and 1090 MHz). What you put on the drone can be any frequency you find convenient for the task.

    As for the bad sound track, those defense contractor videos have always been like that (well, going back the 20+ years I've seen them). Never could figure out way.

  3. Drones with the capabilities you're talking about aren't hundreds or thousands, but tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each. The hobby drones most people think of are guided by wifi signals, with a line of sight range of a few hundred meters.

    And we had the technology to deal with them in the 1940's. 40mm rounds with proximity fuses would work quite well against quad-copters. Oddly enough, Sweden switched to 40mm guns on their light vehicles a while ago.

    Now we get into the cat-and-mouse game of active sensors, sensor homing, and jamming. And if the drones are talking to each, other, they're active emitters.

  4. @McChuck: No, they won't be nearly that expensive. See the Atlantic article's comment that the drones that have already been used in attacks are "substantially less sophisticated and maneuverable than a DJI Phantom 4, the leading consumer drone".

    My sources in the US military and Israel are telling me that hobbyist drones carrying thermite and/or high explosive hand grenades are now becoming a common sight on battlefields in Syria and Ukraine, and getting more powerful and sophisticated by the day. Already, primitive swarm technology is being used by terrorist organizations. Nations such as Iran are developing it and making it available to their client organizations, including Hezbollah, which is active in Mexico and alleged to be sharing drone technology and operational insight with the drug cartels there.

    This technology is much more prevalent, and much more of a threat, than some people will acknowledge. Read the FBI Director's testimony here, from a Congressional presentation a few days ago:

  5. Strikes me that a multi barrel Gatling or mini gun chambered for shotgun rounds would be just the ticket for oncoming bomb drones. One big advantage is that the falling pellets are relatively harmless. Many years past our small town would have a yearly pigeon reduction event to deal with all the flying feathered rats in our downtown area. Local sportsman clubs were invited to fire away with the restriction to only shoot flying birds. No shots when they were perched on a building or wires. I can still recall standing under a rain of pellets. Helped to be wearing a hat, and you really didn't want to be looking up without glasses. But no real damage. Of course these days the citizens would react with horror to such a solution so instead they use poison bait that kills the pigeons along with anything that feeds on them.
    In a somewhat similar vein I reload thousands of rounds of ammunition for a few buddies who regularly go to South Dakota for prairie dog shoots. Ranchers welcome them with open arms as it keeps the population of the little varmints somewhat in check, and the alternative would be poison which would cause collateral damage to the winged raptors and four legged scavengers such as foxes and coyotes.
    Been using heavy barrel target ARs in .223 out to 400 yards and either .243 Winchester or the new 6mm Creedmoor for longer shots. Each shooter can easily burn in excess of 500 rounds per trip.

  6. Seems to me the problem is on par with shooting clay pigeons, so automatic shotguns would seem like a cheaper solution. Say tied to a targeting AI expert system.

  7. If it uses electricity, it can be killed with electricity. powered lift systems, similar to helicopters, have limited lifting abilities when downsized to less that a meter in overall size. Reynolds numbers and all that. scaling down to the size we are discussing causes a restriction on self defense capability because of weight and added complexity to the design and control systems. EMP is a viable weapon against drone swarms. there are many known methods to generate EMP effects.
    recall if you will, during testing and development of a certain fly by wire medium lift twin engine utility military helicopter the severe problems it had while flying near television station transmitter antennas…the only effective solution they found was to avoid those areas.

  8. Remember Khan from the first Star Trek series & the movie (Wrath of Khan)? He was genetically engineered.

    Just science fiction….

    Skynet? Just more science fiction…

    The next thing you'll be talking about is self driving cars ….

    (because this is the internet & the sarcasm could be missed)

  9. @Uncle Lar

    Shotgun systems would be ridiculous: your engagement range is 60m or less.

    You could shoot at them all day from 100m or farther and never hit a one.

    And they could fly directly overhead at 300' altitude, and come straight down, and even if you hit them, the payload arrives on target.

    If the first target is your notional Gatling-shotgun, they've then opened up a gaping hole in your defensive umbrella.


    Try to recall that we're talking about guided weapons here, and not nuisance rats-with-wings depositing nothing more harmful than bird guano.

    Trying to defend yourself from functionally the bottom of a 300' well is a poor defense, at best. If a guy is dropping hand grenades on your head in that scenario, you're going to have a bad day.

    Now, you want to try with a minigun in .223, go ahead on, with the range now several hundred meters rather than just 50 or so, but even at that, you're going to run out of linked ammo a lot faster than you can reload and re-supply, and whether it's Drone #42 or #242 that gets through, you're still going to come up short at some point, and you're back to getting crapped on from a great height.

    Oh, and all those hundreds of rounds will be coming down somewhere, so in effect, you're simply transferring the target from you to wherever the beaten zone of your misses is.

    You might could get away with that at sea, or in Kansas wheat fields, but in a populated town anywhere, not so much.

    "Drones kill 3, ADA kills 58" is never the headline you want to see the next day, but at least you'll have less trouble tracking down the biggest terrorist in town at that point.

  10. You have the eternal problem of fixed point defense (with limited ammo) vs. mobile offense (with resupply) here. At some level ANY fixed defense can be overwhelmed but how does the attacker marshal enough resources to do the job.

    I'm sure some old techniques like barrage balloons (aka torpedo nets) will come back around. Directed energy and EMP defense will help but the bigger issue is finding the launch point(s) and launchers early in the attack so the swarm can't be built out.

  11. I do wonder how fast the effectiveness ofthese lovely lasers will deteriorate as that nice clean glass gets dirty/dusty. Most effective countermeasure might be a long range paintball gun

  12. Something I haven't seen mentioned much here, but which is being seriously pursued at the moment, is microwave weaponry. It's feasible to harden drones against microwave, but at a cost in complexity and weight, and it means you can't simply use commercial models. It's a relatively mature technology and we have a great deal of transferable experience thanks to the advanced state of our radar technologies.

    Solid-state laser technology has made incredible progress in the last few decades, and though there are significant technical hurdles ahead, and shipboard units in the mid hundreds-of-kw IR range are seeming increasingly plausible as a near-term development goal. At that point they even start to become a viable point-defense weapon against subsonic ASCMs, which contra much recent fear-mongering, still make up the vast majority of the world's ASM stocks. Whether such lasers are ever actually operationalized will depend on a lot beyond their own inherent merits, of course.

    Given conservative assumptions about the efficiency of vehicle-mounted generators and lasers, land based point-defense lasers in the ~200 kw range aren't out of the question, assuming of course that the current pressing issues affecting beam quality and power above 100 kw can be solved. Such a laser could prove a pretty effective counter-rocket, mortar, and even artillery defense, as per the lower-power demonstration by Rhienmetall a few years back.

    Fog, spray, and smoke degrade laser performance to a level dependent on density of the obscurant and the parameters of the laser. Generally, the way around this is "moar power" as my generation might put it.

    I'm sure there's experimental work on this that I haven't seen or don't have access to, but, theoretically at least, I don't think stuff on the aperture window would be a show-stopper at weapon levels of beam intensity. I don't think you'll ever see an exposed primary optic (dielectric mirror, usually), and IIRC the aperture window is usually coated in something exceedingly hard, like sapphire. The beam should just burn up and blow off (by gas/steam pressure) any shmutz on the window without causing too much degradation to the window surface. Obviously you'll eventually have to replace it, but I think more on a depot-maintenance time-scale. That's just a guess based on my spit-ball assumptions, though, so YMMV. An operational laser weapon will probably also have a quick-acting shutter, too. Still, someone could shoot it out with a rifle while it was firing, but couldn't they do the same with many conventional air-defense systems right now?

    It seems that proximity-fused cannon-rounds would have to be very sensitive to work against small drones, and there are always the inevitable duds to worry about. I think cannons in general will stick to being used for larger, tougher targets at longer ranges than beam weapons but shorter ranges than missiles (and in situations where a missile isn't practical for tactical reasons).

    Counter-drone drones are certainly an option, just as we have anti-aircraft aircraft (fighters) and most tanks have the main job of being anti-tank weapons.

    As Rick points out, any defense can be overwhelmed. To be effective, point defenses must be integrated into the larger offensive/defensive concept of operations (not that we're terribly good at that, lately).

    Many of the technologies we're talking about, while promising, are still early-days. The only way we'll find out what works and how to fit them all together is through extensive prototyping and testing, and by carefully observing foreign conflicts to learn from the experience of others.


    Gorsh!!! They made a special effects CG videeyah about it! It just HAS to be true, A-HYUK!"

    Hey Aesop! I'm coming for YOU!!! Me and my killer drones are going to make an example of you. Maybe I'll drop a wadded up pair of fouled Depends diapers down your gullet as you gobble in fright. Or – my doomsday drones will drop weaponized and genetically enhanced killer gerbils and hamsters in your back yard at night by parachute – and you'll wake up dead the next day! HAR HAR HAR!!!

    I yam a clear and present danger, dontchya know! I am Glen Filthie: hobby aviator and destroyer of worlds! Gaze upon my works and tremble, old hens.
    Yannow we keep seeing these neat-o vids of laser and coherent particle beam weapons but they never seem to make their way onto the battlefield.

    As for you Pete – if I find my weaponized gerbils turning up in one of your SF yarns – I will sue for copyright infringeMINT. 🙂

  14. Kind of like how navies hate naval mine warfare. A mine stays "on station" until a target goes by, doesn't need resupply, air, or fuel, and is quite a bit cheaper than even the cheapest vessel. Plus, mines don't salute admirals.

  15. Let me see if I have this right:
    A develops a weapons system of some sort, Maxim gun, Fokker Triplane, submarine, whatever. B discovers they have no defense against it. They put their best minds, or whoever is available, into a crash program to develop a response. The janitor finds the answer. He gets a small bonus and a medal, then is never heard from again. The company rushes into production with a generous government contract, with large bonuses for speed. Problem solved.

    Then A develops an advanced, highly imaginative weapons system. Side B panics, but has better sense than A. They skip the scientists and engineers and go straight to the janitor. And the process starts again.

    But then A discovers their system worked fine in the last conflict but is worthless in the next one. But the military has a new toy and all the defense contractors are still in business and everybody in the government contracting process has lined their pockets.

    Is that about right?

  16. Since the problem is quadcopters with grenades (effectively) attacking vehicles, let the solution fit the problem.

    Ground vehicles could have permanent camo netting over them to entangle the drones or catch grenades out of contact range. Two or three meters can make a huge difference in terminal effects. This is a cheap and effective countermeasure for this level of threat.

    Peter – My earlier post referred to the costs of drones with the listed capabilities (from the article) right now. Swarm AI, GPS and inertial guidance, target identification, multi-kilometer range, NLOS communications (that will work in and through wooded or urban terrain), kg+ payload – these aren't standard, hobby-grade drone options right now. Ten years from now, maybe, but not now. You pay for what you get.

    Slightly separate topic: We are in the era of net-centric warfare. The Russians are on the leading edge of fighting in that sort of environment. They have electronic warfare units at the battalion level, and have shown no reluctance to jam, spoof, or otherwise mess with their opponent's networks and comms.

  17. Glen,

    We've already established, from your own mouth, that you're incapable building a drone that could even lift one of your soggy Depends on a windy day. Which should at least bring some solace to your downwind neighbors.

    If you were the benchmark for what might happen, humanity would be safe in perpetuity.

    Unfortunately for actual humanity, people with more IQ points than you have already cracked what you couldn't, and for under $100.

    You've already beclowned yourself on this topic enough for 144 ordinary ignoramusii, so you've officially qualified for "Gross Ignoramus" status.

    Walk tall.

    We already covered your obligatory kneejerk response to reality above in this very thread, so all showing up now does is waste bandwidth and kill electrons that never did you any harm.

    You've proven that no one can stop you from pulling your own pants down and embarrassing yourself on a topic you claim as your forte. The only question remaining is why anyone would even want to do that.

    And if there's an internet award for most obnoxious codwalloper, I'm pretty sure the competition is not on this blog, so maybe you'd be kind enough to move your entry to your own venue and host it there.

    I can assure you with unrestrained sincerity, you've absolutely got my vote locked up.

  18. Well they COULD make toys like the DJI Phantom carry useful loads, Aesop – why the CG animated film with special effects?

    Oh. You thought that was REAL. And you would mock my intellect?

    HAR HAR HAR!!! Kinda like the pot calling the kettle black with that one… 🙂

  19. Mock?
    The word you're looking for is "describe".
    I paid no attention to Raytheon's PR, nor watched the video. It's completely irrelevant to the subject under discussion, including its form. Having declared the entire idea unpossible, you've already precluded any consideration of any contrary data whatsoever anyhow. (The technical name for that position is "religious superstition", not technical expertise, btw.)

    If you have questions about Raytheon's corporate videos, perhaps you should inquire with their media and public relations departments yourself.

    Just wild spitballing speculation here, based purely on long and close association with numerous close friends and family in corporate aerospace and engineering, but I'ma go with the earthshattering-to-some-folks idea that general consumption videos only get released to people with no actual "need to know", and the live-action stuff on file isn't anything they thought they needed your input on, nor into which they care to brief you, in callous disregard of your frequently announced expertise on the matter.

    I'm also guessing that the fifth-largest military contractor in the world, with annual revenues of some paltry $25B (that's nine trailing zeros for Common Core grads), are notably unswayed by your "Unpossible!" weaponized drone arguments. (The fools!) And that like many capitalistic enterprises are prone to do, are entering a niche in the market as yet unfulfilled by competitors, so consequently they're not very enthusiastic about putting metric craptons of trade secrets out there for a hundred other companies, friendly and not, to pirate from them gratis nor on which to outdo them.

    But as you're doubtless smarter than all of them put together, mayhap you should contact them on the matter, and share their reply for the mutual edification of all present.

    Even captains of industry need comic relief now and again.

    So, did you really want to talk about the weather, or just make chit-chat?

  20. What's the cost-benefit of electronic anti-drone systems vs a bunch of falconers? Are the drones they're talking about too fast for birds to catch?

  21. Methinks Glen is Canadian, if I recall correctly. He's not allowed to weaponize anything beyond a pine cone.

  22. Re: Falcons… I can see two problems right off the bat. We aren't talking about one or two UAVs in the attack but 20, 30, or more. Enough that the birds are overwhelmed.

    Plus, all the attackers need is one UAV set up with a contact trigger and Boom! No more falcon. Blow up a couple of birds and the survivors aren't going to be nearly as enthusiastic, it isn't any fun when the lure fights back…

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