Drone Swarms: Can the U.S. Military Defeat Them in a War?

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October 21, 2020 Topic: Drones Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Drone SwarmsDronesAnti-DroneDrone DefenseU.S. Army

Drone Swarms: Can the U.S. Military Defeat Them in a War?

Time to bring out the lasers? What are the best weapons to defeat this new challenge? 

Swarms of enemy drones approaching a forward operating base or groups of dismounted soldiers present a unique and increasingly challenging threat. Enemy drones can blanket areas with surveillance, test enemy defenses, jam communications and even themselves become explosives to attack targets. 

The variety of uses of small drones, and the guidance systems which direct them, can be very difficult to defend against, a reality inspiring the current Air Force effort to solicit new ideas on ways to destroy them. The Air Force recently released a Request for Information (RFI) to industry, asking for new innovations able to counter small enemy drones. 

Certain small drones can hit speeds of 60-to-70 miles per hour, and some are small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. Swarms of these can be dispatched to cover an area with ISR and build-in redundancy so a mission can continue if one is destroyed.

Portions of the Air Force’s RFI describing the threats were quoted in Air Force Magazine as having “characteristics such as small size, low radar cross-sections, low infrared or radio frequency signatures (or no RF signatures), ability to hover, and low-altitude flight capability, which may render them difficult to detect and/or defeat. These UAS are typically either controlled remotely from a ground control station or capable of flying pre-planned routes.”

The Air Force and the other services such as the Army are now improving existing drone defense weapons and moving quickly to deploy new ones, such as interceptor missiles, networked ground sensors, laser weapons and electronic warfare, among other things.

While many medium, large and longer-range drone countermeasures have reached substantial levels of maturity, smaller vehicle attack drones, such as those described by the Air Force RFI, present unique and still somewhat unresolved challenges. Drone swarms, for instance (such as commercially-available quadcopters) can be flown in groups to overwhelm radar systems, spy on a target, or even themselves function as explosives.

Dispersed groups of attacking drone swarms present a number of complications for the attacked force, according to a 2017 essay from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The essay, called “The Upside and Downside of Swarming Drones,” discusses some of the reasons why drone swarms are difficult to defend against.

“Swarming is advantageous for offensive missions because it can overwhelm enemy defenses with a large number of potential targets. In a swarming attack the drones are dispersed, which makes it difficult and expensive for the adversary to defend itself. If 10 drones attack a target simultaneously and 7 are shot down, 3 will still be able to complete their mission,” the essay, written by Irving Lachow, states.

Some of the more promising drone defenses likely consist of things like electronic warfare, lasers, interceptors or “area” weapons such as the Phalanx able to blanket an approaching field of view with numerous small interceptor projectiles. Another approach can be found with a new “proximity” round able to explode in a specific, pre-determined point in space to create a small “area” explosion. 

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. 

Image: Reuters