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Drones and UAV Swarming – more dimensions
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Aug , 2017

Various Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Pictured are (front to back, left to right) RQ-11A Raven, Evolution, Dragon Eye, NASA FLIC, Arcturus T-15, Skylark, Tern, RQ-2B Pioneer, and Neptune.

As per media reports, there was considerable concern about a black helicopter spotted flying over and crossing the no-fly zone over the Ram janambhoomi in Ayodhya on August 10, following a crude bomb recovered inside a train at Amethi and clips found removed from the railway track near Bareilley recently. This obviously was a full-sized helicopter but then remote controlled helicopters can very well be used for terror attacks.

Compared to a normal helicopter, a low flying drone are difficult to battle especially if they are in multiples / waves. At the same time a single drone too is difficult to detect and can cause unimaginable damage.

The Aum Shin Rikyo cult that carried out the multiple Sarin gas bombings of the Tokyo subway in 1995 had two remote controlled helicopters that luckily crashed during trial runs. Otherwise the cult could have sprayed Sarin gas over Tokyo using these helicopters. They were later found to have enough Sarin gas to kill one million Tokyoites and had even smuggled in a Russian Mi-8 helicopter in parts that had not been assembled by then.

In the recent battle by Iraqi forces to recapture Mosul, the ISIS was using waves of drones not only for surveillance and monitoring troop movement, but also drones to drop grenades and bombs that caused caution and considerable casualties to Iraqi forces during battle in built-up areas.

Compared to a normal helicopter, a low flying drone are difficult to battle especially if they are in multiples / waves. At the same time a single drone too is difficult to detect and can cause unimaginable damage. For example, a lone Russian drone reportedly carrying a thermite grenade (combination of iron oxide (rust) and aluminum powder) blew up billions of dollars worth of ammunition last month when it struck the Balakliya military base in Eastern Ukraine (96 kms from the Russia-Ukraine border); the thermite grenade setting off a series of titanic explosions in what has been described as the largest explosions in recent history. This drone attack highlights the growing use of drones, particularly off-the-shelf commercial products to undertake wartime sabotage and terror attacks.

In 2016, two French Special Forces soldiers were injured and two Kurdish fighters were killed by an exploding ISIS drone. As mentioned above, ISIS conducted numerous drone attacks during the Mosul campaign. Guerrilla groups, terrorists, and perhaps even governments worldwide have rapidly weaponized consumer drones, effectively turning hobbyist devices into lethal weapons capable of killing. So, logically, weaponized drones can be used anywhere in the world. India must keep this threat in focus, keeping in view the enlarging terror threat coupled with the anti-India China-Pakistan collusivity,

The drone flies itself to the destination without human intervention. China had unveiled its passenger drone last year. It goes without saying that passenger drones can carry larger loads for sabotage and terror, suicide bomber (s) included.

Pakistan being the mother of terrorism and China’s sabre rattling with relation to the Doklam Standoff. Then, there have been numerous incidents of scare in flights landing and taking off from London’s Heathrow Airport because of drones appearing close to / along the flight path. This needs to be examined with relation to our airports, especially with the proximity of built up areas.

Commercial drones are available in all sizes – from mini to passenger-drones. Dubai is to introduce passenger drones as taxis this summer. Electrically powered to fly 30 minutes at 100mph, the only control inside is a touch screen for the passenger to select the destination. The drone flies itself to the destination without human intervention. China had unveiled its passenger drone last year. It goes without saying that passenger drones can carry larger loads for sabotage and terror, suicide bomber (s) included. While mosquito-sized drones for spying and surveillance have been developed in the  US using nanotechnology, Japan has interestingly developed insect-sized drones as artificial pollinators with the help of a coating of horse hair and an ionic sticky gel.

The drones work like bees and use their hairs to pick up pollen from one flower and deposit it into another. Given that morality doesn’t feature in the lexicon of terrorist organizations, nor does it matter in hybrid warfare, there could be waves of bees with a biological sting attacking targets in not too distant future.

The Chinese military envisions its drone swarms scouting battlefields, guiding missile strikes and overwhelming the enemy defences through sheer numbers. Coinciding with China’s military parade to mark the 90th birthday of the Peoples Liberation Army, China’s first batch of unmanned aerial vehicles conducted live fire drills. The PLA has been armed with the ‘Attack-1’, which is a scouting and attacking UAV meant for seek and destroy. Of course the firing from the Attack-1 armed UAVs was also part of the psychological campaign that China has been mounting against India in the wake of the standoff at Doklam in Bhutan.

Today, the global market of civilian drones is 85% Chinese brands, but China has also been exporting military and commercial drones to many countries including the US and Pakistan.

China’s recent anti-satellite (ASAT) flight test was also in the same vein. One aim of PLA’s theory of deploying large drone fleets would be to expand China’s military reach into the Pacific and swarming US carrier groups in the event of conflict. China could possibly be having the largest drone fleets after the US. As per 2012 figures reported in the Guradian quoting the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the US was then operating 6,709 drones compared to 280 by China’s PLA but that difference in numbers could have narrowed considering the modernization pace of the PLA and her feverish pitch to bridge asymmetry vis-a-vis the US.

In 2010, there were more than a hundred UAV developers / manufacturers in China and by 2014 this number had increased to over 230 – 2/3rd being private enterprises and balance government. The latter are fully capable of indigenously completing the entire development of UAVs of various sizes, from the initial at the very beginning to the final completion of UAVs of various sizes; from the smallest micro air vehicle (MAV) to the largest UAV. By end 2013, over 15,000 UAVs were operating in China in the civilian sector alone.

Today, the global market of civilian drones is 85% Chinese brands, but China has also been exporting military and commercial drones to many countries including the US and Pakistan. The US Army very recently has stopped the use of Chinese drones due to cyber concerns.

In 2016, China announced: it was exporting military drones to more than 10 countries (without disclosing the names of these countries); drones exported were ‘Cai Hong’ or Rainbow, with the bestselling CH-3 capable of firing missiles 10km from a target and staying in the air for more than 10 hours; one of the client (an African country) was using the CH-3s about 100 hours on average each month; China is plans to export its new ‘CH-5’ model capable of launching air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs. Interestingly, the Chinese ‘Wing Loong, drone reportedly costs around $l million, compared to the US ‘Reaper’ drone that is in the $30 million range.

Considering its vast drone industry, China can be expected to deploy UAVs en-masse at specific targets; something which the US Navy is also uneasy about in case of conflict in the Western Pacific.

Admittedly, technologies and capabilities may vary but the point to note is that you can perhaps buy 25-30 Wing Loong drones for the price of one Reaper but more significantly, the Wing Loong has the same endurance as the Reaper (20 hours), has a range of 4,000 km and packs four hard points for mounting variety of lasers, precision guided bombs. But what is posing concerns globally is mass employment of UAVs, being termed UAV swarming. Considering its vast drone industry, China can be expected to deploy UAVs en-masse at specific targets; something which the US Navy is also uneasy about in case of conflict in the Western Pacific.

At the same time, UAV swarming has acquired another dimension with demonstrations conducted in the US since last year. In early 2016, the US announced it would demonstrated in summer of the same year the US Navy’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) program fusing unmanned aircraft into a swarm,  demonstrating 30 drones flying together somewhere over the ocean.

Subsequently, in January this year, US Navy and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office have demonstrated swarming autonomous drone technology in flight using over 100 unmanned aircraft. During the test, conducted over China Lake, California, three Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets launched 103 ‘Perdix’ drones that demonstrated swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing; functioning like a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature. Once the swarm technology is operational, the potential would be limitless.

The Perdix is the harbinger of future swarming drones that could be used for everything like taking down enemy air defences, electronic warfare, reconnaissance etc. Applications of such technology also include simulating emerging threats, asymmetric weapon systems, and enhanced situational awareness. The system utilizes an Ultra-Wide Band aerial vehicle-to-aerial vehicle radio link, making it highly resistant to detection and/or jamming. The Indian defence establishment needs to take these developments into account.

The news about MoD sanctioning the proposal of 544 robots to be used by the Army in J&K is good news, but why only J&K, use of robots for multifarious asks must be optimized across the board.

The DRDO has been working on a UAV program for some years and the Make in India initiative has now opened avenues for indigenous production of state-of-the-art UAVs including the armed and stealth versions with longer reach and survivability. We must not lose focus on this. Given the sabre rattling by China in face of the Doklam standoff, whatever action China initiates could see the use of UAVs including UAV swarming given the fleet of these platforms that China possesses – both military and civil. The Armed Forces must be prepared accordingly.

The terror threat, as mentioned above, also needs to be taken into account by security agencies, spanning the gigantic tasks of surveillance, monitoring and defeating / destroying such threats. Additionally, the Armed Forces would do well to also examine employability of commercially available drones and UAVs in hybrid warfare, without waiting for what the DRDO and private industry would supply indigenously in the future.

The news about MoD sanctioning the proposal of 544 robots to be used by the Army in J&K is good news, but why only J&K, use of robots for multifarious asks must be optimized across the board.

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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

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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3 thoughts on “Drones and UAV Swarming – more dimensions

  1. Thank you for raising the issue. This is a real danger.

    This is a scenario that I aniticpated in School (1960s)when the potential of remote controlled aero models for assassinating undesirable tyrants seemed an excellent option.

    The response mechanism that I also foresaw with the uninhibited science fiction influenced school boy mind, at that time, was mobile remote sensors linked to mobile computers that would detect threats and respond immediately.

    Technologically, this day dream of mine is fully feasible to day. It requires a disciplined drone licensing policy meshed into air traffic control to sift out unlawful intruders and rapid response of those detected. This should be integrated with a nation wide air protection umbrella. with missiles silos of different capacities suited to the scale of threats detected under proper manual over sight.

  2. Wing loong & swarming drones add a dimension to conventional warfare which has the potential to change the balance of power at tactical & strategic level substantially & I am afraid decisively.
    The article is wakeup call with time at a premium.

  3. Need to have laser weapons that shoot drones down or smaller missiles that do the job cheaply. Need swarming missiles to deal with swarming drones. I am sure India can come up with its own unique solution cheaply. Something like a big shotgun fired at these drones and they come down would be fun.

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