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Swarm drones: A new frontier for military combat

Ravinder Reddy
By:
Ravinder Reddy
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The Beating Retreat Ceremony on 29 January 2022 in New Delhi saw 1,000 swarm drones putting on a stunning show, lighting up the sky and leaving the nation in awe. The show was designed, conceptualised and produced indigenously under the Make in India initiative by Botlab Dynamics.

With a display of 1,000 indigenously produced swarm drones, India became the fourth nation to achieve such a feat, allowing strong foothold in the field of drone technology. The US, Russia and China have also carried out such swarm drone displays in the past.

What is a swarm drone and how is it effective?

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A swarm drone is a concept where a large cluster (or many clusters) of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is flown together in a contested or hostile airspace, to confuse the radar with a much bigger image than the actual target and achieve their assigned objective or other specific missions, including targeted strikes or supporting tactical operations.

These drones work in tandem with each other and are either remote-controlled or operated autonomously with the help of onboard processors. They could be effectively used in the suppression of enemy air defences, destruction of enemy air defences, the simultaneous Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD/DEAD) roles, distorting the image of assets on enemy radar, detecting the enemy radar sites and relaying information to operators.

Drones within a swarm can carry out a wide range of missions, such as strikes against tanks, infantry combat vehicles, ammunition holding areas, fuel dumps and terror launch pads.

From a global purview

The world is moving at a very fast pace in this space. A few reputed swarm technologies around the world are:

  • The French Icarus project
  • The Russian Lightning
  • The Spanish RAPAZ
  • The UK’s Blue Bearswarm
  • The UAE/South African N-Raven
  • Israel has a number of projects like Sky striker. In May 2021, during its conflict with Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces became the first military to use a drone swarm in combat
  • US. Marine Corps is progressing with kamikaze drone swarms, while the Army, Air Force, Navyand DARPA are pursuing separate swarm initiatives, with some services working on multiple projects
  • China has a number of swarm programmes

Swarm drones: India and China

China has already made rapid advancements in swarm drone technology. In 2021, the country released a video of a truck-mounted system launching a barrage of swarms. It was the first practical use of such a system on this scale anywhere in the world. The test demonstrated the ability of the whole process, such as the rapid deployment of vehicles, intensive launching, hovering and launching in the air, precise formation, formation change, ground inspection and attack and precision strike.

With regards to India, on the occasion of the 73rd Army Day on 15 January, the Indian Army demonstrated its drone capability, including Kamikaze attacks and strikes using a mothership. In this first-ever demonstration, 75 drones, including quadcopters and bigger hexacopters, were launched from varying heights.

During the display, 13 targets, symbolising hostile armour, dummy mortar positions, troop concentrations, fuel dumps, radar sites, terror hideouts and helipads were struck. The drones were synchronised with satellite feeds and area correlation technologies.

The bigger hexacopters, called the motherships, launched child drones, which oriented and aligned themselves according to the target designations and optimised target trajectory using artificial intelligence algorithms running on the onboard flight computers. The child drones, carrying explosives, then crashed into the target, destroying themselves and the enemy asset – in a typical Kamikaze strike.

Before the child drones commenced the targeting sequence, another team of drones entered the airspace and carried out confirmatory reconnaissance using raster scans and assigned the targets to individual drones to execute pre-programmed offensive missions.

These fully autonomous drones can reach 50 kilometres inside enemy territory and carry out missions targeting the pre-designated hostile assets with high-impact warheads.  The drones can strike targets at a range of 100km in a self-destructive assault. The drones were made in collaboration with a Bengaluru-based start-up. What they showcased was just a fraction of the capabilities they have actually brought to the service.

Start-up expertise intervention

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However, proper assimilation of the new technologies and developing indigenous tactics will take time. While several drones are already being used for surveillance along the border and in counter-terror operations, the drones displayed during the Army Day parade were highly sophisticated, autonomous and armed UAVs.

The armed forces have signed contracts with Indian defence companies and start-ups under the fast-track process for acquisition of new-age weapons, a move that will see dometic systems delivered to the frontline on a faster pace.

The army has taken the lead in swarm drones, considered as the future of warfare, by placing INR 200 crore order with Indian start-ups to supply a system capable of surveillance, electronic warfare and kinetic attack. Bengaluru-based start-up, NewSpace Research and Tech, has been selected for the contract.

NewSpace Research is also working with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for a futuristic air-launched swarm drone system called Combat Air Teaming System (CATS). 

DRDO display of swarm drones

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), in November 2021, showcased an indigenous capability to carry out offensive missions in enemy territory with scores of drones working in assorted formations to identify, encircle and strike targets, with the loitering munitions being developed to meet a key military requirement and keep soldiers out of harm’s way. The capability demonstration came on the opening day of a three-day defence function in Jhansi, linked to the ongoing country-wide celebrations to mark the 75th year of independence.

The drone swarm showcased capabilities related to distributive sensing, decision making, reconfigurable path planning and autonomous attack, indicating that the swarm algorithms have advanced features for niche and distinctive capabilities.

Tech-driven weapons are the key

Conventional warfare is giving way to technology driven weapons and systems. It is a matter of time before the new technology overtakes the existing warfare tactics and the warfare become more tech-driven. In line with the notion, "Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur," the Government of India and related defence forces are addressing the changing dynamics of war and equipping the nation for the future.