The idea of military drone swarms has prompted excitement and angst amongst defense experts for years. The excitement stems from visions of their effect against enemies, while the angst revolves around the need to defend troops, civilian populations, and infrastructure from relatively cheap, expendable weapons with the ability to carry out concentrated attacks in designated areas.
The technology that enables drone swarming has rapidly advanced and continues to mature as multiple countries, including the US, France, Spain, the UK, Iran, and Russia, seek out the benefits of autonomous, swarming drones that are able to perform a wide variety of mission sets, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) collection, as well as kinetic and non-kinetic attacks.
True drone swarming does not simply equate to large numbers of drones collectively engaging a target. While groups of drones do offer massing affects against targets within close proximity, mobs of drones currently in use by Russia, for example, do not quite reach the threshold of swarming.
Swarming technology is generally designed for group 1 or group 2 drone classes (smaller drones with a takeoff weight of up to 55lbs), and operates using autonomy and artificial intelligence to keep their distance from one another while coordinating targeting. Swarming drones have the ability to communicate with each other and dynamically adjust in real-time, using sensors and artificial intelligence for prioritization of target prosecution.
Much of what has been reported about Russia’s use of drone swarms is a bit misleading. The so-called swarms that have been employed against Ukrainian infrastructure and personnel consist of numerous kamikaze drones engaging single targets, something significantly different from drones communicating and coordinating attacks amongst each other.
However, this doesn’t mean that Russia isn’t working towards increased drone capabilities, with swarming as an inevitable end state. Russia not only uses Iranian-produced drones for attacks in Ukraine but is also setting up factories alongside Iran to produce additional kamikaze units with the likely intent to swarm using autonomous capabilities and artificial intelligence in the future.
Iran is a key partner in helping Russia achieve its drone goals and is pursuing drone swarms of its own. The country’s “Mass Flight” program, under development from its Iranian Army Ground Force, aims to swarm Shahed series drones using artificial intelligence and autonomy with off-the-shelf components.
Don’t expect drone swarms to be one-trick ponies. Ultimately, drone swarm operations are likely to yield beneficial results beyond kinetic engagements in wartime.
Picture this: A swarm of Russian drones is launched from Kaliningrad and sent out over the Baltic Sea with the sole purpose of harassing Baltic countries. This swarm of rapid, mobile drones is engineered to conduct disruptive, non-kinetic operations on infrastructure and people. This swarm has been loaded with a multitude of non-kinetic capabilities, including Wi-Fi hacking, radio signal disruption, and the ability to produce devastating microwave frequencies (think Havana Syndrome), all while operating miles off the coast.
This may be the future that Russia’s Baltic adversaries have to contend with. While the scenario above describes more than a mere nuisance, these hypothetical, non-kinetic harassment techniques via swarm employment would likely fall below the need or desire to invoke collective defense action via NATO’s Article 5. This is exactly the kind of grey-zone activity that Russia, or any other malign actor, could utilize to stoke fear and sow political and security-related discontent.
Terrorist groups and other non-state actors will have a role in the use of drone swarms as well. The Houthi rebel group in Yemen has successfully demonstrated how to operationalize individual drone attacks against a state actor (Saudi Arabia) despite the target’s robust defense capabilities. It is not unreasonable to believe that Iran’s proxy terrorist groups will benefit from the maturation and operationalization of Iran’s “Mass Flight” Shahed drone swarming program.
The US and its NATO allies will face an uphill battle trying to counter drone swarms as the required technology advances and swarm sizes grow larger in numbers. A combined approach to collectively defend against both individual drones and swarms of drones will be required to effectively stave off attacks.
While the U.S. military services (army, air force, navy, and marines) and NATO militaries, continue to research and develop offensive drone swarms and counter-unmanned aerial systems and anti-swarm technology with industry partners, rapid operationalization of drone swarms for offensive use and simultaneous bolstering of defensive capabilities against enemy swarms will be key for the US and its NATO allies to maintain a collective, global military advantage against malign actors.
Tyler Jackson is a US Air Force officer. He is a graduate of Howard University and the University of Oklahoma and is currently assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School as a graduate student. He is a senior remotely piloted aircraft pilot and former combat systems officer who has amassed over 1,700 combat and combat support hours.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.