If armored combat vehicles were fast approaching heavily fortified enemy positions, and closing with an enemy within range of fire, integrated drone swarms might offer a substantial tactical advantage by blanketing the area with surveillance, testing enemy defenses, or themselves functioning as explosives.
Such a strategic approach, long underway in terms of U.S. weapons development, is now being embraced by the Chinese military which is now working to integrate armored combat vehicles with drone swarms.
A report in the Global Times says the Chinese are testing new “combat systems” to connected drone swarms to armored attack vehicles, a move intended to bring new landwar options to Chinese commanders seeking to outmatch U.S. Army troops.
“In May, an undisclosed unit of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a series of utilization training with this system, which was successful,” the paper writes, citing a column on military affairs affiliated with China Central Television called Weihutang.
The Global Times says the swarm-armored vehicle combat system is made by the Chinese-government owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
The success of the vehicle-drone synergy, it would seem, might hinge almost entirely upon levels of technical sophistication in the areas of autonomy and AI, because swarms of unmanned systems can optimize their impact through elaborate coordination. For example, advanced algorithms enabling increased measures of autonomy allow drones to operate in tandem with one another and, among other things, avoid collisions. Each drone could surveil a specific area, and in the event that a group of unmanned systems are AI-capable, they could share and coordinate information through command and control nodes. In this scenario, each drone would provide a uniquely relevant point of view of great significance to a mission objective.
In the case of the Navy’s Ghost Fleet project, for example, advanced, AI-empowered algorithms enable groups of Unmanned Surface Vessels to operate in a coordinated fashion by sharing objectives, exchanging navigational and intelligence information and optimizing mission tasks in a collective fashion. Such technical coordination would enable unmanned systems to increasingly perform analyses, solve problems and perform analytics in near time… all in coordination with one another.
Extending this reasoning, an armored vehicle flanked by drone swarms could utilize some drones for surveillance, others for perimeter or navigation assessments and still others for actual attack, all while merging and organizing otherwise disparate pools of information.
One interesting scientific premise being explored to advance this concept can be found in an area of study referred to by experts as “biomimetics,” the study of how emerging science can parallel biological phenomena. With this in mind, scientists specializing in the areas of autonomy, AI and drone swarms are examining flocks of birds, bees and other natural creatures which exhibit swarm behavior. What are the mechanisms through which these swarms operate without running into each other? How do they form specific groups, flight paths or aerial configurations? While it may at first glance seem odd, these are areas of substantial inquiry in the effort to harness the best available levels of autonomy.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.