Military drones are disrupting warfare in the three domains of air, land and sea. Their exploits in the Ukraine war continue to excite interest even as this is being written. In recent years, they have made significant military contribution in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Azerbaijan and Armenia besides being used gainfully by Israel in Gaza against Hamas terrorists, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Drones are increasingly being used for all the roles that manned aerial platforms have been executing so far, albeit the scale may be much smaller for a single drone vis-a-vis a single aircraft. A drone’s cross-section renders it hard to detect while its low cost and the absence of a human being on board makes it dispensable when detected. Of course, the scale in terms of payload remains humble and that deficit is being addressed by increasing the numbers of drones in individual missions. This crude aggregation of a large number of drones to achieve concentration of force is being refined and honed to ameliorate their synergistic effect through drone swarms.
The term ‘drone swarm’ conjures up an image of a large number of drones flitting across the sky like a congregate of bees or migrating birds. However, miniaturisation technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are adding fresh nuances to the term. A majority of the drones are controlled by a human operator from afar but remote control of drones, when they are in close proximity of each other as in a swarm, continues to pose a major air space management problem. The solution is to give them autonomy and the wherewithal to communicate locally in contrast to the satellite links that traditional drones are controlled through. This consultative empowerment within the swarm not only enables them to maintain position safely with respect to other constituents of the swarm, but also permits individual drones to be assigned diverse tasks and, in the case of attrition, reassignment of tasks within the swarm, as determined. This coordination, supported by AI, permits the swarm drones to operate on autonomous missions with possibly one human involved with a copious flock of drones. The effect of a drone swarm is thus qualitatively much more than the sum of its constituent drones. This article looks at drone swarms as assets and as threats and assesses India’s status in that area.
The first acknowledged military use of autonomous, AI driven drones, collaborating as a swarm in combat was by Israel in May 2021. The swarm was tasked to locate, identify and attack Hamas militants. Drone swarms can be defined as “multiple unmanned platforms and/or weapons deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behaviour based on communication with one another.” The capability to communicate with each other and collaborate as a group based on real time inputs in the field, distinguishes the swarm from a group of several drones. There could be a human on or completely out of the Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA) loop, a concept developed by Colonel John Boyd of the United States Air Force for application to combat operations process. The swarm components strive to accomplish mission tasks exploiting advantages of plurality, for example, the availability of three or more vantage points for triangulating target positions. A wireless network based on Internet Protocol (IP) or other types of communication, connects the elements of the swarm to each other and enables the swarm to operate as a single cohesive unit while permitting individual drone assignments and simultaneous sharing of real time data with each other and a control station. The network enables the swarm to remain universally aware of its environs by sharing external payload data inputs as well as internal systems information of the drone. AI permits assessment of threats based in sensory information and mission-related algorithms and assignment of the best equipped drone for each prioritised task based on location, mission parameters, payload and intended effect. For the sake of completion, it may be mentioned that swarming and teaming are disparate. Teaming implies the retention of some level of in-the-loop control by the manned or unmanned aircraft over the drone teamed with that aircraft. Command and control of the drone and/or the associated onboard sensors, is exercised by the manned/unmanned aircraft crew, the remote operator in the case of the latter, with the ability to actively transfer control to other entities such as aircraft or a controller.
The inter-swarm connectivity and the AI software embedded in each drone permits the swarm to self coordinate in a dynamic manner. While some drones would use their sensors to locate and track targets, sharing the information with the rest of the swarm, others would perform jamming and electronic warfare tasks and some others would actually engage hostile targets. AI would permit the swarm as a whole to react dynamically to changes in the battle space by performing complex non-linear operations. The fact that all this is happening at the local level, much like the concept of edge computing, with the attendant significant reduction in time taken for decision-making and decision conveying, renders drone swarms immensely valuable. Indeed, they are being hailed as a concept that will revolutionise warfare, their characteristics rendering them especially suitable for search and destroy missions against enemy air defences, submarines or mobile missile launchers, as also for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) as well as counter-insurgency, over-the-horizon targeting, air combat and area denial. Drone swarms could be used to saturate enemy air defences, possibly forcing him to expend available resources with insignificant gains of shooting down just a few drones in a swarm.
Drone swarms have the capability to overwhelm radars and air defences, confounding the enemy and dulling his response. Future swarms could carry electronic warfare jammers, emitters that mimic the signals of larger aircraft and equipment capable of conducting cyber attacks or other systems to confuse or saturate an opponent’s defences ahead of or during a more complex operation. In tactical warfare, drone swarms could carry out omni-directional attacks where the component drones could attack one target from multiple angles. Even if some of the drones in a swarm are downed, the cognitive AI algorithms reconfigure the drone network positioning for the remaining drones to maintain situational awareness and switch roles such as decoy, sensor, attacker or just communicator depending upon its positioning and remaining resources.
The scalability of a drone swarm with no upper limit to the number of its constituents and the large scale coordination between those constituents to achieve the effect of a single and reactive combat entity with short reaction time and collective resiliency to hostile action, would be valuable assets for military commanders and enhance their war-fighting capability considerably. Thus, the technologically competent and the militarily ambitious nations are pursuing drone swarm technologies zealously.
The Threat of Drone Swarms
On our land borders, we have two inimical nations both of which are pursuing drones as instruments of war. We have already witnessed a Pakistan-sponsored drone attack on Jammu airport. The threat still remains and could burgeon into the swarm variety albeit lacking in the AI element to provide it a true swarm characteristic. According to analysts, India is a decade behind Pakistan in drone development. In collaboration with China, Pakistan has developed an entire generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs) for its military and government agencies ranging from small rotorcraft to hand-launched surveillance drones and long endurance models such as the Shahpar II. There are reports that Pakistan is developing two UCAVs. Turkey’s spectacular advancements in the arena of drones and with its 90 percent Muslim population, its proximity to Pakistan holds the potential of transfer of drone technology to Pakistan. Since the attack on Jammu airfield, there have been more than 300 drone sightings in the Kanachak, Satwari, Samba, Hiranagar and Kathua sectors. The distinct possibility of more than one drone attacking a military target is a threat that needs to be considered.
China is well ahead of India in drone production and is a world leader in drone technology as far as production volume goes. There is a very high risk of Chinese-made stealth drones imposing information and situational dominance over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as there are reports of China increasingly deploying drones along the LAC in Tibet. Large groups of drones, described by media as ‘swarms’, have also been employed along the border near Arunachal Pradesh. China has published videos of many quadcopter drones delivering meals and other necessary goods to border forces in that area. China is at the leading edge of swarm technology. It already has impressive drones under production and can be expected to pursue that technology assiduously.
The threat drone swarms represent, have been alluded to in the preceding section on their value as assets. Given their resilience and role transmissibility within the swarm, they are hard to counter and the elimination of some of a swarm’s elements does not neutralise the threat as the swarm is still capable of pursuing its collective mission.
While small drone swarms could be tackled using traditional air defence weaponry by targeting one drone at a time, large drone swarms would be affected very little by such a tactic and would have great probability of success before a significant attrition affects its mission accomplishment. A drone-to-drone aerial combat is another option but it would require a large number of drones with the defender as also a very high level of technical sophistication built into them to engage in aerial combat. Israel has been trying out nets to disable drones while a simple chicken wire has also been mooted as an inexpensive and simple defence. However, the most talked about defence against drone swarms are Electro Magnetic Pulses (EMP). These employ huge antenna arrays and directing EMP signals towards the drone swarm would debilitate the entire or a significant proportion of the swarm, thus denying it the capability to firstly act as a swarm and secondly, to achieve its mission objective(s). Of course, there is already a counter to EMP being thought of in relation to drones. This is a Faraday Cage or a protective layer of metal that protects drones against EMP.
Drone swarm threat is also being addressed by development, testing and constant refinement of other counter-drone technologies as well as tactical approaches to disable, jam, or destroy them using AI-enabled sensor processing, interceptor missiles and munitions like Israel’s Iron Beam, or non-kinetic alternatives like high intensity microwave, lasers and other Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). Australia’s drone shield disrupts radio frequency in the hostile drone’s video feed and forces it to land or return to the operator. A proximity fuse for gun ammunition is an innovation under development. When fired at a drone swarm, these proximity rounds would detonate within lethal range of a drone, the fragmentation causing wide spread destruction within the swarm. Proximity rounds are proving to be more effective than air burst ones pre-programmed to explode at specific, predetermined positions in the air.
India’s progress in the area of military drones, largely driven by the public sector Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been unimpressive, and limited with most of the drones in military service coming from Israel and more recently, the US. In 2018, the Indian Air Force (IAF), in search for indigenous military swarm drone solutions, launched the Meher Baba Swarm Drone Competition in a bid to circumvent the laborious procurement procedures prescribed by Ministry of Defence (MoD). The competition, named after the late Air Commodore Meher Singh, popularly called Meher Baba, was aimed at finding proprietary indigenous design, development and production of low-cost swarm solutions for variegated IAF roles, including disaster relief operations.
The competition attracted 154 participants from all over the country and a Committee of Experts shortlisted 57 from amongst them. The IAF encouraged, supported and mentored the participants and the five finalists were given recognition and rewards. While position keeping was exhibited by some of the participants, the technology levels demonstrated fell short of the AI-driven characteristic of a drone swarm described earlier in this article. In pursuit of that capability, the Meher Baba Competition – II has been launched during the Air Force Commanders’ Conference in New Delhi during April 2022. The performance parameters defined for this competition are much more rigorous, for example, day and night operations including under GPS-denied conditions et al.
Position keeping by a large number of drones was visible during ‘Beating the Retreat’ part of the Republic Day Celebrations this year. That capability was impressive, but falls short of the collaborative level required from a drone swarm to collectively achieve military missions. For the same reason, a mock attack by 75 Indian Army drones during the Army Day Parade in January 2021 fell short of meeting the swarm definition although it did employ 75 drones carrying out multiple attacks including kamikaze type attacks, medical aid and supply drops. This is because each drone was autonomous, but independent of other drones in the so called swarm. It would be premature to hail it, as the media did, as a milestone in disruption in warfare, albeit it is a step in that direction. In November last year, a much publicised drone swarm demonstration took place in Jhansi as a part of the Rashtra Raksha Samarpan Parv wherein the DRDO flew 25 drones, but the description of “flying coherently with minimal human intervention” betrayed the gap between the 25-drone flight and the heart of a drone swarm, the collaborative interconnectivity.
The Indian Army is working with New Space Research and Technologies Pvt. Ltd., a Bangalore-based drone company and an award winner at the first Meher Baba competition, for developing true drone swarm capability. The final objective is to fly a thousand drones in a swarm. The involvement of the private sector is a cheerful cause for optimism for the Indian military. The design, development and manufacture of whole aircraft required a very high threshold level of investment and infrastructure and thus was viewed with hesitation by the private sector. However, drone technologies are less expensive and require lesser infrastructure.
India is also carrying out some R&D in the area of anti-drone technology and DRDO, with great fanfare, deployed an ‘Anti Drone System’ for VIP protection near the Red Fort during Independence Day Celebrations last year.
There is enough historical evidence in the recent past to aver that drones are disruptive, drone warfare is asymmetric, much like guerrilla warfare, and the emerging drone swarm capability holds the potential of being a strategic asset in future warfare. The government is undoubtedly aware of implications of possessing drone swarm capability, and the hazards of our enemy deploying them against us. Swarm drones are still going to get a low priority in our defence shopping list. As far as the IAF goes, its preoccupation is with bringing up its combat aircraft strength of 31 squadrons to the sanctioned number of 42. Whether its budgetary priorities will make space for drones and to what extent will depend on the absolute figures of allocations in the coming years.
While the record of the public sector in the development of drone technology is not encouraging, the private sector has two things going in its favour – the low investment in R&D of drones and the fact that foreign drone manufacturers are willing to collaborate with private players. Israel has proved especially munificent in this direction and is already collaborating with our public sector and several private entities. The MoD also has started a new scheme or government grant for drone companies to collaborate with foreign technology companies working on drone propulsion, anti-drone technology and drone monitoring. This joint venture will receive aid both from India and Israel as part of a new treaty between the governments.
In September last year, the Indian government announced a Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme specifically to encourage drones and drone components. Significantly, it covered civil and defence applications and allocated Rs 120 crore spread over three financial years, an amount double of the combined turnover of all domestic drone manufacturers for the year 2020-2021. The PLI is 20 percent of the value addition made by the manufacturer. Value addition is calculated as annual sales revenue from drones and drone components (net of GST) minus the purchase cost (net of GST) of drone and drone components. The eligibility norm for MSME and start-ups in terms of annual sales turnover has been kept at a low level of Rs 2 crore (for drones) and Rs 50 lakh (for drone components) to allow an increased number of beneficiaries. It may be mentioned that more than 500 start-ups in India are already working on drone technology to solve problems such as helping farmers monitor crops, inspecting power lines and bridges for companies, providing connectivity to rural areas and monitoring construction sites.
All indications are that Indian industry in the private sector is poised to play the key role in military drones. India has the wherewithal to support the 1,000-drone swarm objective in terms of both drone technology and the AI needed to provide the essence of a swarm. The IAF has made a beginning through the Meher Baba Competition and all the three services are engaging with private players towards this niche competence. It is hoped that the government continues permitting private players into space very fondly reserved for the public sector, gets over its obsession with secrecy over anything military and allocates a high priority and commensurate budgetary allocation to this crucial capability.