Military & Aerospace

Mother of All Swarms
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Mar , 2023

In the hunt to kill Osama bin-Laden, the US had fired its GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb (thermobaric/aerosol bomb) in Afghanistan on April 13, 2017; unaware that Osama was merrily enjoying the hospitality of Pakistan, sheltered close to Abbotabad. First tested in 2003, the GBU-43/B is colloquially known as the “Mother of All Bombs”. The GBU-43/Bhas a length of 9.1885 metres and a blast yield of 11 tons TNT (46 GJ).

In January 2023, Ukrainian General Command announced the formation of new “tactical drone assault units”.

Now there is news that Russia has destroyed NATO’s deep underground command bunker in Kiev (Ukraine) on March 12 this year using its Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile, which was first reported by ‘Pronews’ (Greek portal of political and military information) citing American sources. Dozens of NATO officers were reportedly killed. Built at a depth of 120 metres, the command post housed more than 300 personnel, mostly British and Poles but also Americans.

Ukrainian officials claim that Russia is firing missiles in thousands and both Ukrainian and American air defence systems  cannot shoot down the Kinzhal (Dagger) missile flying at an altitude 20 km, and then falling at high speed on the target.  According to YuriyIgnat, spokesman of the Ukrainian Air Force Command, “We cannot yet counteract these missiles. They fly along a ballistic trajectory. We have no means against them”.

The above battlefield asymmetry has led Ukraine to increase  swarm drone attacks on Russian forces. According to a news report in ‘Forbes’ magazine dated March 24, Russia is bracing for attack by some 50,000 Ukrainian Kamikaze drones to overwhelm the frontlines. In January 2023, Ukrainian General Command announced the formation of new “tactical drone assault units”.

Now it is reported that Ukraine has bought almost the entire market of first-person view (FPV) drone components available in China – some 50-100 thousand units. FPV drones are smaller than standard quad-copters and fly at speeds of 195 km/h or more.  Ukraine is using FPV components to make kamikaze drones with a shaped charge warhead from RPG/RPG +0.5%-7, or with a fragmentation grenade. Carrying an anti-tank RPG warhead or RLG-3 grenade, these drones constitute effective lethal weaponry.

The Indian Government has given a fillip to the fledgling indigenous drone industry in recent months.  ‘Drone Shakti Scheme’ was part of the proposals in the Union Budget last year – 2022, which pushed for promotion of drones through startups and skilling at Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs); startups to be promoted to facilitate ‘Drone Shakti’ through varied applications and for Drone-As-A-Service (DrAAS). The aim is to unify the efforts of the drone ecosystem through the institutionalization and creation of a structure to enable synergies among multiple stakeholders.

The Indian Government has given a fillip to the fledgling indigenous drone industry in recent months.  ‘Drone Shakti Scheme’ was part of the proposals…

Subsequently, the government also announced the Rs 120 crore Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for the drone segment in 2022. Now data from the research firm ‘Tracxn Technologies’ reveals that in FY 2022-23, drone start-ups attracted $49.7 million in investments across 20 rounds; compared to $25 million received in FY2021-22 across 23 rounds and $11.2 million received in FY2020-21 across 20 rounds. This shows a 300 percent investment growth in this segment in the last three fiscals. Tracxn Technologies has also said that 90 percent of the Indian airspace is now accessible to drone use after the laws and regulations were liberalized in 2021. All this is good news. In addition to use by Armed Forces, drones are increasingly being used for a variety of tasks including surveillance, crowd monitoring, traffic monitoring, medicine delivery, food delivery, traffic monitoring, agriculture and the like.

It was reported in our media recently that the Indian Army began receiving the first batch of 100 armed offensive drones in January 2023. But we need to seriously examine the war in Ukraine, especially in terms of use of missiles and drones. We could be faced with similar situations in the next conflict with China, which may be forced upon us by Beijing in the not so distant future. China should be expected to employ swarms both during missile and drone attacks.

In 2020, China had demonstrated a drone swarm launcher although details of the tests conducted were not made public.  This system can reportedly launch up to 200 drones at once. The report claimed that drones were quickly and simultaneously released while the transport platforms were in motion. China claimed the drones switched between different formations once they were released and conducted reconnaissance and attack missions on ground targets.

At the Zhuhai Air Show in November 2022, China displayed another truck-mounted swarm launcher that reportedly launches about 18 drones at once. During the tests conducted by the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, drones were released from truck-based, 48-unit launchers. This upcoming system will consist of an extremely mobile loitering drone swarm launcher with individual launch canisters that can be quickly reloaded. The system would be employed for surveillance, precision strike, saturating attacks, area control and damage assessment,

China’s WZ-8 supersonic-hypersonic, remotely operated, high-altitude drone (in service with PLA since 2019) has a cruise speed of Mach 6 to Mach 7 and service ceiling of 50,000 metres.  China’s missile arsenal includes: DF-10A subsonic cruise missile; DF-100 supersonic cruise missile; .DF-21D ‘carrier killer’ anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) with 1500-2000km range can hit the second island chains and any approaching US naval flotilla; DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) with a range of 2,500 km mounted on a DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with 3,500 km range can hit any US naval base in western Pacific. 

China displayed another truck-mounted swarm launcher that reportedly launches about 18 drones at once.

In February 2023, Chinese scientists claimed to have developed the technology to significantly boost the operational range for hypersonic weapons; having built a prototype hypersonic engine with a fuel efficiency of 79 percent. China says its operational YJ-21 hypersonic missile can destroy US aircraft carriers against US intervention if China invades Taiwan.

In terms of FPV drones being converted to kamikaze role by Ukraine, China could easily employ them in thousands against our frontline troops at chosen points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in conjunction with attacks by bigger drones, which could also be in swarms and the drones having multiple tasking. We need to seriously examine this in terms of our air defence capability against swarms. Ukraine’s newly formed “tactical drone assault units” should also be examined against periodic calls to cut down the manpower of our Army which has already been skinned to the bone.

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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 Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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