On January 5th a swarm of thirteen drones operated by Syrian rebels attacked two Russian bases in Syria. While the attack was unsuccessful, it was the first of its kind, and indicative of the type of warfare that we can expect to witness in the future in regard to unmanned vehicles. While militants have used small drones to attack government forces before, they were never used en masse in a “swarm”.
In this capacity, they have the power to transform warfare.
The power of the drone lies in it’s cheap, small and disposable nature, as well as the fact that it does not require a human to control. Initially, drones operated as scouts in areas that were either too dangerous for humans, like inside an enemy territory, or as replacements for manned bombers; as seen in the MQ-9 Reaper. As technology has advanced, drones are finding more applications in the offensive operations like the ones seen in Syria and Iraq.
The potential of the drone in offensive operations rests on the swarm. Deploying fully autonomous drones en masse can be used for several tactical purposes; overwhelming the enemy’s air-defenses, attriting his units, launching feints, harassing enemy troops and conducting deep strikes against strategic targets.
In Syria, drones were used against Russian forces in two of these capacities. The swarm attempted to overwhelm Russian air defense and strike a vital strategic target (Khmeimim Air Base.)While the swarm was defeated by a combination of Russian Pantsir-S1 SHORAD systems and electronic warfare, we can still draw lessons from the attack.
Finger off the Trigger
One of those lessons is that humans will have limited involvement in the point of contact with the enemy. Controlling a swarm will mean that Artificial Intelligence (AI) or scripting will be needed to make them effective and practical in tactical operations. Even a relatively small swarm of 13 drones would be impossible for a human to pilot effectively in detail. It would be like flying a dozen aircraft at once.
An example of this kind of information overload is present in many modern video games in the Real-Time-Strategy (RTS) genre. In the Total War series, the player controls formations made up of hundreds of individual units. Like drone swarms, these units are too complex to command down to the individual soldier.
The player, therefore, acts as a general, moving large formations together providing tactical and operation guidance. The formations rely on artificial intelligence to stay together and carry out the commands. For example, if a player sets a regiment to attack another unit with bayonets and right-clicks, the regiment’s AI will find the most efficient path to the enemy and attempt to destroy them.
Swarms operate in a similar fashion. In Syria, the swarm was programmed to fly to a specific location and release their weapons without a human operator.
This is a relatively basic system in terms of autonomous vehicles. Newer variants of the Tomahawk cruise missile already have options for changing missions in flight, and the idea of calling off an attack by AI-based units has existed for years in video games like the above mentioned Total War.
Below, I have included a video of a swarm following a series of scripted commands to surround a target using a waypoint system similar to an RTS game. (first half of the video.)
Like all human weapons, drones will, and already have been, specialized to meet different needs. The drones the Syrian rebels used were designed to perform reconnaissance and strike targets. Hence, they were much larger than a typical quadcopter because they had to carry a bomb load. A Drone specialized for reconnaissance will be smaller to minimize the chance of detection, while a hunter-killer like the Reaper will have to be much larger to carry bombs and missiles.
They will be ubiquitous
Although state actors will command the most advanced drone fleets, the proliferation of cheap microchips, 3-D printing, and programming knowledge are making drones easier to obtain and weaponize. Non-state actors have access to substantial capabilities like the ones demonstrated in Syria. These capabilities will only grow as time moves on.
They will not replace manned aircraft
While drones have substantial capabilities they will not replace manned aircraft. One issue is what is often referred to as “lag,” or Latency issues. The long-distance communication and encryption/ decryption processes involved in controlling drones either as a group of individually results in significant latency between when the command is sent and the machine responds. The Telegraph reported that this can be as long as two seconds while Aviation Today gives a 1.5 to 2.5-second range.
To put this in terms of video games; a drone commander gets about 2000 ping on average. Add in the reaction speed of a normal fighter pilot (about 0.25 seconds) and It can take up to three seconds for a drone or swarm to respond to a new threat or contingency.
Drones simply cannot react quickly enough to combat other aircraft. We learned this back in 2002 when a predator was destroyed trying to shoot down an Iraqi MiG-25 with a Stinger missile (really). Unsurprising, given the Foxbat can travel a mile and a half in the time it takes for the video signal to get back to the drone commander.
Electronic jamming complicates this problem. Even if the disruption is only temporary, it could cause severe operational problems. Gamers often refer to this as a “lag spike” and it usually results in death due to either complete loss of situational awareness, false inputs that result in crashes or this:
In Syria, the Russian military managed to take down six rebel drones in this manner by jamming their communications.
AI is another limiting factor for UAVs. A computer, (or robot in this case) can be programmed to act within certain parameters, but cannot truly “think.” Military leaders often make decisions based on unquantifiable data or instinct based on years of experience. In essence, drones lack a coup d’oeil. War is more complicated than a single equation and no amount of machine learning will give a drone human military genius.