Defence Industry

Autonomous Aerial Weapons & Platforms
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Issue Vol. 33.4 Oct-Dec 2018 | Date : 14 Sep , 2019

The modern military drone was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist and aero modeling hobbyist, who in 1971, had the idea that these models could be applied to building weapons. He drew up plans and by 1973, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had built two prototypes. They were powered by a modified lawn-mower engine and could stay aloft for two hours while carrying 28-lbs of load. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel used unarmed US Ryan Firebee target-drones to spur Egypt into firing its entire arsenal of anti-aircraft missiles. Later, Israel developed the lighter Scout and the Pioneer UAVs and soon became a lead manufacturer of UAVs for real-time surveillance, Electronic Warfare (EW) and decoys. In the 1982 Lebanon war, extensive UAV-based EW resulted in zero Israeli fatalities. The first UAV war was the Gulf War in May 1991 when at least one UAV was airborne at all times during Operation Desert Storm. The first human ‘kill’ by an American UAV was on October 07, 2001, in Kandahar.

The US has increased drone strikes against targets as part of the War on Terror. On June 24, 2018, Fazlullah became the third Ameer of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to have been killed in a US drone strike. The TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack in Waziristan in 2009, while Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in 2013. By June 2015, the total death toll as a result of US drone strikes was estimated to exceed 6,000. The American and earlier Israeli successes resulted in China, Iran, Italy, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey acquiring or aspiring for similar capability.

An Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone, is basically a normal UAV that carries ordnance such as missiles and bombs. These drones are usually under real-time human control, with varying levels of autonomy. Equipment necessary for a human pilot operations, such as cockpit, ejection seat, environmental systems, oxygen etc are not needed, as the operator controls the UAV from a remote ground/airborne location. The armed UAVs attack targets with remote-controlled machines using ‘stand-off’ weaponry, greatly de-personalising the decision to attack and considerably reduced casualties among the attackers, raising ethical questions. The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) resulted in UAV operations free of human involvement/interference and could now initiate an attack autonomously. Such UAVs could possibly react more quickly and without bias, but would lack human sensibility. But airborne Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs) under a cyber-attack could go haywire and have operational and ethical implications.

The concept of ‘autonomous drones’ is that they can act based on their own choice of options or ‘system initiative’ and ‘full autonomy’…

Evolution of Autonomous Aerial Platforms

The modern military drone was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist and aero modeling hobbyist, who in 1971, had the idea that these models could be applied to building weapons. He drew up plans and by 1973, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had built two prototypes. These were powered by a modified lawn-mower engine and could stay aloft for two hours while carrying 28-lbs of load. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel used unarmed US Ryan Firebee target-drones to spur Egypt into firing its entire arsenal of anti-aircraft missiles. Later, Israel developed the lighter Scout and the Pioneer UAVs and soon became a lead manufacturer of UAVs for real-time surveillance, Electronic Warfare (EW), and decoys. In the 1982 Lebanon war, extensive UAV-based EW resulted in zero Israeli fatalities. The first ‘UAV war’ was the Gulf War in May 1991, when at least one UAV was airborne at all times during Operation Desert Storm. The first human ‘kill’ by an American UAV was on October 07, 2001, in Kandahar.

Automatic Defensive and Offensive Systems

The oldest automatically-triggered lethal weapon is the landmine used since the 1600s. Some active protection systems such as radar-guided AD guns can autonomously identify and attack oncoming missiles, rockets, artillery fire, aircraft and surface vessels according to preset criteria set by the human operator. Many missile defence systems such as the Iron Dome also have autonomous targeting capabilities. Offensive systems with a higher degree of autonomy would include drones or UCAV. The Future Offensive Air System can autonomously search, identify and locate enemies but can only engage with a target when authorised by mission command. The Northrop Grumman X-47B drone can autonomously take-off and land on aircraft carriers. Future applications of unmanned undersea vehicles might include mine clearance, mine-laying, anti-submarine sensor networking in contested waters, patrolling with active sonar, re-supplying manned submarines and becoming low-cost missile platforms. Russia is developing a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo named Status 6.

Artificial Intelligence Arms Race 

An AI arms race has been on for the last four to five years. The US is clear that rapid advances in AI will define the next generation warfare. The US private investment is around $70 billion a year. DoD has an AI budget of $9 billion. Russia has been working on AI-guided missiles that can decide to switch targets mid-flight. There already exist complete autonomous AI operation systems that provide the means for UAV clusters, when they fulfill missions autonomously, sharing tasks between them, and interact.

Airborne Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs) under a cyber-attack could go haywire and have operational and ethical implications…

China is fast catching up with and plans to overtake the US in AI. The close ties between Silicon Valley and China and the open nature of the American research community, has made the West’s most advanced AI technology easily available to China. Beijing’s roadmap aims to create a $150-billion AI industry by 2030. Beijing has committed $2 billion to an AI development park. Annual private Chinese investment in AI is around $7 billion a year. AI startups in China received nearly half of total global investment in AI startups in 2017. The Chinese filed for nearly five times as many AI patents as the US did. It is predicted that China will be the leading country in AI by 2025. Israel’s Harpy, anti-radar ‘fire and forget’ drone, also with India, can autonomously fly over an area to find and destroy radar that fits pre-determined criteria.

Major Autonomous Platforms

While USA and Israel remain world leaders in developing high technology UCAVs and Autonomous platforms, China has become the ‘Wal-Mart’ of small hand-held UAVs used by hobbyists and has, of late, made significant R&D investments in military autonomous platforms. Chinese UCAV WZ-2000 is the combat version of the Xianglong High Altitude Long Endurance UAV. They are also developing a stealth strike UCAV called the ‘Warrior Eagle’ with forward swept wings, similar niche to US X-45. BAE Taranis is a British technology demonstrator UCAV programme. It is part of the UK’s Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle Experimental (SUAVE) programme with fully integrated autonomous systems and low observable features and a Maximum Take-off Weight (MTOW) of about 8,000kg making it one of the larger UAVs in the world. The first-flight of the Taranis took place in August 2013. It will have two internal weapons bays. With the inclusion of ‘full autonomy’, the intention is for the platform to be able to ‘think for itself’ for a large part of the mission. An operational derivative of the Taranis, the proposed Future Combat Air System, is expected to enter military service after 2030.

UCAS-D and Northrop Grumman X-47B are the US Navy (USN) successors to the US Air Force (USAF) and USN joint J-UCAS, which was cancelled in 2006. Boeing is also working on the X-45N a concept demonstrator for a next generation of completely autonomous military aircraft. The UCAS-D programme is to demonstrate the feasibility of operating an unmanned vehicle on an aircraft carrier. Technology and operational procedures gained from the programme and X-47B demonstrator will be used to develop an operational unmanned carrier aircraft as part of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) programme. Northrop Grumman intends to develop the X-47B into an operational aircraft, the MQ-25 Stingray, which will enter service in the 2020s. The USAF has shifted its UCAV programme from medium-range tactical strike aircraft to long-range strategic bombers. The technology of the Long Range Strike programme is based on the Lockheed Martin Polecat demonstrator.

Autonomous drones, when they are used during armed conflict, would be subject to the general principles and rules of the Law of Armed Conflict…

The MQ-25 Stingray Unmanned Carrier Aviation Air System (UCAAS) formerly the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS), is a UCAV that has emerged from the UCLASS programme. In February 2016, after many delays and doubts about whether the UCLASS would specialise in strike or ISR roles, it was decided to produce a Super Hornet sized, carrier-based aerial refueling tanker with some ISR and some communications relay capabilities. The strike variant will evolve later. Three of these UCAVs could fly with an F-35 for refueling and sensor operations. The MQ-25 could extend the Super Hornet’s combat radius. The competitors are Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost, Boeing’s ‘unnamed’ (based on Phantom Ray), and General Atomics’ Sea Avenger.

The Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 is an Israeli medium size, multi-payload UCAV designed for tactical missions with over 20 hours endurance. Hermes 450 is equipped with two Hellfire missiles or other newer missiles. The Dassault nEUROn is an experimental UCAV being developed with European international cooperation, led by the French Dassault Aviation. It is meant to be a stealthy, autonomous UCAV for medium/high-threat combat zones. The Mikoyan SKAT is one of the Russian low-observable, subsonic tail-less, UCAV with maximum take-off weight of ten tonne. It is meant to carry weapons in two ventral weapons bays large enough for missiles such as the Kh-31. It is powered by a single Kilmov RD-5000B turbofan engine, a variant of the RD-93. Indian DRDO’s AURA is an autonomous stealthy, flying-wing design UCAV, being developed for the Indian Air Force (IAF). It will be capable of releasing missiles, bombs and other PGMs. The programme is still in the project definition stage. 

Autonomous Drone Concept

The concept of ‘autonomous drones’ is that these can act based on their own choice of options or ‘system initiative’ and ‘full autonomy’. Such drones are programmed with a large number of alternative responses to the different challenges they may face in performing their mission. One of the greatest challenges for the development and approval of aircraft with such technology is that it is extremely difficult to develop satisfactory validation systems, which would ensure that the technology is safe and acts as humans would. In practice, such sophisticated drones would involve programming for an incredible number of combinations of alternative courses of action, making it impossible to verify and test these to the level as for manned aircraft. There are also those who think of autonomy meaning ‘artificial intelligence’ – systems that learn and even self-develop possible courses of action to new challenges.

In January 2018, Russia confirmed a swarm drone attack on its military base in Syria…

AI Enabled Drone Swarms

UAV Swarming/swarm intelligence is a field of robotics research. With the recent advances in chip technology and software for robotics, it has become feasible to design machines exhibiting complex behavior, achieve mutual coordination and accomplish complex tasks. Aerial robots can ascend synchronously, communicate with each other in mid-air and create cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group manoeuvres are possible. The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature e.g., honeybee swarms, flying in coordination, displaying collective intelligence and each executing a small share of the collective task.

Very small drones – some weighing less than five lbs – can cause devastating effect if they are armed with weapons and flown in a swarm of large numbers. Drone swarms can be both remotely operated or fly autonomously or may accompany ground vehicles and other aircraft. Even a single drone getting through could be potentially lethal. Terrorists and other militants can also operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons. Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to catch on radar and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms. During the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea, a spectacular pre-recorded display by a quad-copter drone swarm comprising 1,218 drones left spectators astounded.

In January 2017, the US Air Force carried out trials with 103 Perdix quad-copter drones functioning as a swarm. The trial included airdropping of these drones in the battlefield from canisters carried by three F/A-18 fighter aircraft, gathering the drones in a swarm and then proceeding to engage targets in the battlefield. In 2016, China demonstrated drone swarming using 67 larger, fixed-wing, drones. Russia has reportedly been working on a concept of drone swarming wherein the Scandinavian countries have seen Russian drones flying in formation over their skies. Drone swarms are now being conceptualised as canister launched weapons, especially the quad-copter ones, which would make them easy to pack and carry. These could be airdropped through fighter or transport aircraft, or through bigger drones, over or close to target, depending on the danger level in the airspace in the target zone. The swarms could be varied in size depending on the task to be performed.

The Pentagon is looking at ideas on how to build a flying aircraft carrier that can launch and retrieve drones using existing military aircraft…

Modes of Attack

Small quad-copter drones, laden with small but potent explosives, when employed as anti-personnel weapons, could be carried hidden in the pocket and launched anywhere to target specific individuals and vital equipment. These drones could even identify the target individuals using facial recognition techniques. Modern drones are getting equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) which has made problem solving, target recognition, obstacle negotiation and path-finding much easier and almost human like. Hundreds of drones over a battlefield or an airfield or even a political rally would saturate the airspace and counter-swarm resources invariably would run short. Swarms could also be integrated with fighter aircraft or attack helicopter missions to increase their safety during missions. Swarms could also be used to counter enemy swarms.

Cost Dynamics – Advantage Small Autonomous Drones

Big drones such as the ‘Predator’ are expensive, slow and vulnerable to being targeted. These have to be flown singly and cannot be of much use against an advanced adversary. In contrast, small drones could be assembled into non-standard models and used to attack targets clandestinely. Since such models are cheap, they could be made in the hundreds or thousands without much of a cost burden. Electronics such as GPS, digital cameras, laser range finders, RF data communication sets, processors, batteries, engines, motors and even pressure transducers and altitude sensors are priced low enough to be used to produce advanced capability cheap drone models for military missions including armed ones.

Drone/Swarm Counters

Drone swarms have some weaknesses and limitations too. First and foremost, their offensive could be blunted through the use of countermeasures such as electronic warfare techniques, cyber-attacks, laser and microwave weapon systems, small arms fire, camouflage and concealment or pitching a counter drone swarm. In January 2018, Russia confirmed a swarm drone attack on its military base in Syria. Six of these small-size UAVs were reportedly intercepted and taken under control by the Russian EW units. The drones had satellite navigation electronics and carried professionally assembled Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The US is now deploying new radars such as the Q-53 system that can detect and identify such small objects and then initiate the kill-chain using laser weapons.

India is in one of the most threatened regions of the world and needs to watch weapon developments closely…

Lockheed Martin ‘Skunk Works’ engineers are engaged in research to develop and implement the technology that will detect and defeat swarms. A 60-kilowatt system that combines multiple fiber lasers to generate the high power weapon parallel beams. The laser weapon system can fire over and over, essentially creating an unlimited magazine of bullets. Laser beams are visible and can accurately aim, target and destroy the threat – at the speed of light. Cyber solutions to defeat drones are by using multi spectral sensor systems to detect and then using cyber electromagnetic to either disable the drone or physically take over and divert. Lockheed Martin has already supplied the US Army with a 60-kilowatt laser, mounted on a large modified truck that can destroy rockets, artillery, cruise missiles, drones and other trucks or ground vehicles. These can also be integrated onto aircraft, ground vehicles and ships.

Ethical and Legal Issues

Autonomous drones, when used during armed conflict, would be subject to the general principles and rules of the Law of Armed Conflict. In this respect, autonomous, drones are not to be distinguished from any other weapon system. The question is for how long may an autonomous weapons system (lawfully) be “left alone” to operate for hours or days? The delegation of life-and-death decisions to non-human agents is being questioned by those who oppose autonomous weapon systems. As with any ‘means of warfare’, autonomous drones must only be directed at lawful targets (military objectives and combatants) and attacks must not be expected to cause excessive collateral damage. The ‘unmanned’ aspect of armed UAVs has raised moral concerns about their use in combat and law enforcement contexts. Attacking humans with remote-controlled machines was considered more absurd than the use of other ‘stand-off’ weaponry, such as missiles, artillery and aerial bombardment, because of de-personalised decision to attack. It now gets even more complicated if the UAV can initiate an attack autonomously, without direct human involvement. Such UAVs could possibly react more quickly and without bias, but would lack human sensibility.

Drones are more likely to be hacked if these are autonomous, because otherwise the human operator would take control. Technological possibility of autonomy should not obscure the continuing moral responsibilities humans have at every stage, some argue. Though accuracy has greatly reduced collateral damage, drones are still blamed for considerable innocent civilian deaths. With war becoming safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide. Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unlike bomber pilots, drone operators see its effects on human bodies in stark detail. Limiting the risk to soldiers by removing them from the battlefield altogether, could make war too ‘easy’, reducing it to a low-cost technological enterprise that no longer requires any public or moral commitment. Clearly, autonomous drones raise important judicial and ethical issues about responsibility for unintentional harm. One school of thought is that our fundamental responsibility for war and how wars are fought can never be morally ‘outsourced’, least of all to machines. The law requires a reasonable Commander to act in good faith.

The Way Ahead

Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs) that can independently search and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions may operate in the air, on land, on water, under water or in space. The autonomy of current systems, as of 2018, is restricted in the sense that a human gives the final command to attack – though there are exceptions with certain ‘defensive’ systems. Autonomous weapons are today capable of deciding course of action, from a number of alternatives, without depending on human oversight and control, although these may still be present. Although the overall activity of an autonomous unmanned aircraft will be predictable, individual actions may not be.

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US DARPA has been developing a fleet of small naval vessels capable of launching and retrieving combat drones without the need for large and expensive aircraft carriers. The Pentagon is looking at ideas on how to build a flying aircraft carrier that can launch and retrieve drones using existing military aircraft such as the B-1, B-52 or C-130. Robots and weapons platforms using AI at the forward edge of battle are no longer confined to science fiction. The US is developing new undersea drones that can operate in shallow waters, where manned submarines cannot. Pentagon’s ‘blue sky’ research project aims at developing ‘intelligent machines’. Russians have had robots armed with grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs. China, too, is investing heavily in automated weapon systems and platforms. Also under test are autonomous drones that operate with manned aircraft as ‘Loyal Wingmen’. Already well tested is the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system of Poseidon P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and unmanned TRITON aircraft. Further development of unmanned systems to be launched from manned aircraft, to work independently or as extension of the ‘mother aircraft’. Recently tested were the ‘Perdix nano drones’ of which 100 were dropped from an F-18 ‘mother aircraft’. The prospects of autonomous technology, be it flying drones, underwater vehicles or other lethal weapon systems, clearly bring new opportunities for military forces.

Getting It Right – India

In view of small defence expenditures and the persisting duplications of military capacities, mixed manned and unmanned air formations might be opportunity for future conflicts. Intensive weapon research is going on for AI and autonomous weapons. That is where the future is. India is in one of the most threatened regions of the world and needs to watch weapon developments closely. With very few players in the market, technologies are closely guarded. No one parts with them. India has to make a serious beginning to develop AI-based weapon systems and platforms to stem excessive technological gap. The DRDO has to get its act right. Beg, borrow, steal, or just convert the theoretical research into formidable deliverable end-products if India is to achieve its aspirations of becoming a global player. The government needs to take the bull by the horns, allot adequate funds and position dynamic result-oriented professional managers.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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