The Era of the Drone Swarms

The drone swarm technology has revolutionised conflict dynamics dramatically. Swarms can conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, and offensive operations. China's test regarding a swarm of loitering munitions, or suicide drones, highlights the evolving nature of drone war and threats that India could face in the future. Therefore, developing counter-swarm technologies to intercept and neutralise hostile drones is critical for maintaining combat overmatch. India needs to prioritise funding in research and development to stay ahead in this field

By Lt Gen Ashok Bhim Shivane

Opinion

The revolution in military affairs, particularly in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) technology, has transformed the dynamics of modern-day conflict. One such transformation is the generation of drone swarms. The creation of drone swarm technology in which a pack of drones autonomously make decisions based on shared intelligence, stands to revolutionise conflict dynamics dramatically. Coupled with the immense potential of artificial intelligence and data fusion, swarms are revolutionising the future. The recent conflicts have witnessed increasing employment of drones and UAVs in multiple tasks successfully. They present a low-cost high-impact option against military equipment and infrastructure.

China has been working on cutting-edge technologies by exploiting gaps in US trade policies to ensure that they can innovate in the field of drones. China’s test regarding a swarm of loitering munitions, or suicide drones, highlights the evolving nature of drone war and threats that India could face in the future. These swarms may be deployed from various platforms, consisting of tactical vehicles and helicopters, and can saturate traditional air defences through coordinated assaults. Developing counter-swarm technologies, to intercept and neutralise hostile drones, is thus critical for maintaining combat overmatch. Further, a proactive approach is required to develop our own lethal drone swarm capability to put the adversary on the back step.

Applications of Drone Swarming

Defence: Swarms can conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, and offensive operations. Their ability to collaborate enhances target identification and data collection, providing a strategic advantage in both offensive and defensive scenarios. Drone swarms can revolutionise ocean surveillance by locating enemy submarines, or dispersing across widespread regions to detect and neutralise hostile surface-to-air missiles and other aerial threats. They could even be used as innovative missile defence systems, intercepting incoming hypersonic missiles. Swarms geared up with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) sensors, facial recognition, anti-drone weaponry, and advanced capabilities could strengthen the air defence framework against a multitude of threats.

Search and Rescue: In disaster management areas, UAV swarms are invaluable for search and rescue missions. They can swiftly cover extensive areas, locate survivors, and relay information to first responders, significantly speeding up rescue operations.

The effectiveness of a drone swarm often correlates with its size. Larger swarms can cover extra ground, take in greater harm, and execute complex missions. For instance, a one thousand-drone swarm can crush defences that would cripple a smaller group. Media reports imply that China has tested a swarm of a thousand drones, showcasing the feasibility of massive-scale swarms

Agriculture: UAV swarms facilitate precision farming by monitoring crop health and applying fertilizers or pesticides with pinpoint accuracy. This leads to higher crop yields and minimises environmental impact.

Environmental Monitoring: UAV swarms play a crucial role in environmental monitoring and protection. They can survey wildlife populations, track deforestation, and assist in firefighting efforts.

Key Areas for Developing Drone Swarms

Unlocking the vast potential of drone swarm capability will require an understanding of four key areas: swarm size, diversity, customisation, and hardening.

Swarm Size: The effectiveness of a drone swarm often correlates with its size. Larger swarms can cover extra ground, take in greater harm, and execute complex missions. For instance, a one thousand-drone swarm can crush defences that would cripple a smaller group. Media reports imply that China has tested a swarm of a thousand drones, showcasing the feasibility of massive-scale swarms. The ability to handle huge quantities of information and ensure coordination amongst a wide variety of drones is critical to the effectiveness of these huge swarms.

Diversity: A drone swarm need not encompass identical drones. Incorporating drones of diverse sizes and capabilities can enhance the swarm’s abilities. For example, a single swarm could consist of underwater and aerial drones working in tandem, or small sensor drones supplying reconnaissance for larger assault drones in a hunter-killer concept. Diversity permits the swarm to carry out complex tasks and adapt to multiple operational requirements.

Customisation: Customisable swarms provide flexibility, allowing commanders to add or eliminate drones as per operational requirements. This calls for inter-operability and fool proof inter-drone communication, making sure new drones can integrate seamlessly into the swarm. Customisable swarms can adapt to mission-specific needs, whether employing changing their swarm size or varied inclusion from the diverse inventory of drones. This flexibility is critical for responding to dynamic operational environments and mission-specific tasks.

Hardening: Drone swarms are vulnerable to electronic warfare, which could disrupt their communication and coordination or spook them with misled data. Addressing and overcoming such vulnerabilities is critical for their success. This can involve deploying communication and anti-electronic warfare drones to hold network integrity, incorporating anti-jamming technologies, and using robust communication means.

Drones offer a cost-effective way of achieving asymmetry at the point of decision. By leveraging UAVs for precision strikes, surveillance, and electronic warfare, India can deter aggression and attain a strategic advantage against our adversaries. Developing UAVs and swarms, including reconnaissance and combat drones, is critical for combat overmatch

Strategic Imperatives for Indian Defence Capabilities

Enhancing Surveillance and Reconnaissance: India has to acquire advanced C5ISR technology to secure its borders. Given the diverse terrain and altitude operational conditions, “one size fits all” solutions may be a challenge. The focus must remain on the Northern Borders where the primary threat manifests. Drones can offer real-time ISR over challenging terrain, providing a decisive advantage in detecting and responding to emerging threats. The integration of UAVs into the surveillance-cum-firepower grid besides empowering the Integrated Battle Groups with integral capability can enhance deterrence by domination and denial and pre-empt any future incursions.

Asymmetric Warfare Capabilities: Drones offer a cost-effective way of achieving asymmetry at the point of decision. By leveraging UAVs for precision strikes, surveillance, and electronic warfare, India can deter aggression and attain a strategic advantage against our adversaries. Developing UAVs and swarms, including reconnaissance and combat drones, is critical for combat overmatch.

Countering UAV Threats: The optimal employment of anti-drone technology is critical to neutralising potential UAV/swarm threats from our adversaries. Anti-swarm technology will pose additional challenges both in time and space but remains a plausible future field. This could consist of electronic warfare systems to jam, disrupt or spook enemy drone swarms, directed-energy weapons that can disable or destroy UAVs, and kinetic means designed to shoot down drones. The defence will have to be multi-tiered, multi-directional, and multi-layered. Establishing a comprehensive protection AD umbrella integrating these technologies will provide the desired defence against UAV incursions. The airspace management will, of course, have to be addressed with additional aerial assets.

Challenges and Considerations

Technological Barriers: Developing superior UAV and anti-drone systems involves overcoming significant technological challenges. These encompass the miniaturisation of components, enhancing battery life, improving autonomous capabilities, and developing fool proof communication networks. Addressing these challenges requires large funding in research and development and collaboration with educational and defence industry partners. A PPP model which is inclusive and based on risk sharing – gain sharing enabled by Government policy facilitation would be the right direction.

Policy and Regulatory Framework: Establishing a comprehensive policy and a robust regulatory framework is critical for the development, deployment and employment of UAVs. This consists of defining operational qualitative parameters which are achievable, ensuring compliance with regulatory legalities of international agreements like the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and addressing ethical considerations of autonomous systems. Investment in research, science and technology relating to autonomous systems with a spiral approach to induction is the way forward.

Training and Integration: Integrating UAVs into military operations requires extensive training for personnel, improving technology thresholds of users and integrating them at the tactical and doctrinal levels. This includes training operators to handle advanced UAV systems including swarms, and advanced simulators, developing strategies for coordinated drone and anti-drone operations, and ensuring seamless integration with existing military infrastructure. Building a professional workforce and fostering a subculture of innovation is critical for maximising the benefits of UAV technology.

The Way Forward: Recommendations for India

India’s strategic response to developing UAV and anti-UAV capability must encompass a robust indigenous technology and manufacturing ecosystem. Investing in home-grown research, especially with the potential in the private sector, can decrease dependency on foreign technology and be the future for defence exports. Additionally, collaborating with international partners under the Make in India initiative with a spiral approach to indigenisation and IP holding can augment India’s capabilities.

India’s strategic response to developing UAV and anti-UAV capability must encompass a robust indigenous technology and manufacturing ecosystem. Investing in home-grown research, especially with the potential in the private sector, can decrease dependency on foreign technology. Additionally, collaborating with international partners under the Make in India initiative with a spiral approach to indigenisation and IP holding can augment India’s capabilities

Investing in Research and Development: To stay ahead in the evolving panorama of drone struggle, India ought to prioritise funding in research and development. This consists of funding academic establishments, and government institutions, and above all encouraging private-sector partnerships. Ironically India’s investment and financial allocation for R&D by the private sector remains sub-optimal. Artificial intelligence (AI) as a transformative technology has tremendous applications in UAV and anti-UAV system development. AI focused on man-machine collaboration, cross-media collaborative processing, self-control and autonomous intelligence systems is critical to developing UAV Swarms.

Strengthening Defence Collaborations: Collaborating with international partners can enhance India’s UAV capabilities and gain access to advanced technologies. Participating in joint research projects, sharing best practices, and engaging with the military at operational locations can lead to capability manifestation.

Indigenisation and Specialisation:  The drone industry in India and start-ups are expanding exponentially. However, the need is a spiral approach where critical technologies like batteries, drone motor/engine, high-resolution camera and avionics, communication links and semiconductors have an indigenous character and IPR. Further to organise the drone sector market there is a need to structure and classify it with type of drones eg. UCAV, surveillance drones, swarm drones etc. This could make better market sense too.

Developing Robust Anti-Drone Systems: Investment in developing anti-drone capability is crucial for countering UAV threats. This includes deploying electronic warfare systems, directed-energy weapons, and kinetic interceptors to create a multi-layered and multi-tiered defence framework.

Conclusion

The emergence of advanced UAVs and drone swarm generation offers opportunities and challenges for future battle space. The drone and anti-drone must be looked at as a system for development including command, control and communication systems. A lot has been achieved in the recent past in this field yet the challenges of operationalising these capabilities in the desired quantum on the borders need to be expedited.

-The author is a PVSM, AVSM, VSM has had an illustrious career spanning nearly four decades. A distinguished Armoured Corps officer, he has served in various prestigious staff and command appointments including Commander Independent Armoured Brigade, ADG PP, GOC Armoured Division and GOC Strike 1. The officer retired as DG Mechanised Forces in December 2017 during which he was the architect to initiate process for reintroduction of Light Tank and Chairman on the study on C5ISR for Indian Army. Subsequently he was Consultant MoD/OFB from 2018 to 2020. The Officer is a reputed defence analyst, a motivational speaker and prolific writer on matters of military, defence technology and national security.The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily carry the views of Raksha Anirveda