|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
The Islamic State used multiple drones on many occasions against the US and Iraqi forces engaged in retaking territory seized by them in Iraq. On January 5, 2018, 13 x GPS guided drones launched more than 50 km away attacked the Russian Air and Naval Bases at Khemmiem and Tartus in West Syria respectively. On September 14, 2019, Yemen-based Houthi rebels used a swarm of about ten drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s ‘Aramco’ oil processing facilities at Abqarq and Khurais with devastating effect. The latest use of swarm drones has been witnessed in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. The just released video by Azerbaijan of its swarm drones strike on Armenian positions shows massive carnage inflicted. This indicates the profound transformation in warfare swarm drones are going to effect.
So far only small quantity of drones has been used in swarms but countries like China have been experimenting swarms consisting of more than 1000 drones. In December 2017, China flew a swarm of 1,108 drones at the Global Fortune Forum in Guangzhou. This was followed by a pre-recorded display of 1,218 quad-copter drones swarm during the ‘Pyeongchang Winter Olympics’. Low-cost drones using artificial intelligence and high-end technology can coordinate operations far better than same number of soldiers.
China recently tested swarm drones launched from a vehicle similar to the Dongfeng Humvee and a helicopter. The drones are launched with compressed air, then unfold their wings and fly to the target area with an electric-powered propeller. The kamikaze drones carry high-explosive warheads, potentially powerful enough to destroy tanks and other armour. China already has tactical loitering munitions like the 20-pound CH-901, which cruises over the target area beaming back video for the operator to locate a target, then diving in to destroy it on command.
A large swarm ensures greater survivability and need not consist of the same type and size of drones. It could incorporate both large and small drones equipped with different payloads and roles providing greater flexibility. We may witness how swarm drones are revolutionising the dynamics of conflict should China force limited war on us. India so far has relied on imported drones for the military and the basic surveillance drone ‘Bharat’ has recently been provided to troops involved in the standoff with China in Eastern Ladakh.
The basic idea for indigenously producing swarm drones in India came from the Bengaluru-based startup NewSpace Research and Technologies in 2017 following which Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) began developing the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) in conjunction NewSpace Research and Technologies. Half in size of a fighter aircraft, CATS is a drone armed with stealth and artificial intelligence (AI) designed to fly nearly a 100 km ahead of conventional fighters to engage enemy. One Sukhoi Su-30 can carry 30 to 40 of these kamikaze-type drones. Three types of drones are being developed including a glide bomb and an air-launched swarm drone system named ‘Alpha-S’ - a metre-long drone carrying 1.5 tonnes of explosives, designed to be air-launched from fighter aircraft. The drones fly in formation at speeds of 100 kmp/h scouting targets of opportunity including missile sites to attack them. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has done preliminary testing of CATS in Pokhran but its fielding may take another two years or so. On the internal security front, drones swarms equipped with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) detectors, facial recognition, anti-drone weapons and other capabilities offer defences against a range of threats.
Advances in counter drone technologies are ongoing globally. Counter drone equipment already available include: DroneGun - jams the link between drone and drone pilot up to one km; DroneCatcher - net gun armed multicopter that uses onboard sensors and catches it by shooting a net; SkyWall 100 - automated net launching system that uses compressed air to launch a projectile up to the drone after target is identified. One SkyWall100 system can protect an area or multiple systems can be deployed from mobile units to protect a large site; SkyDroner - detects, distracts and disables drone up to one km by taking over the command and control frequencies and disable communication links, and; Sky Fence - incorporates multiple signal disruptors, designed to jam the flight control signal of a drone to prevent overflying installation and disrupt their navigation transmissions.
China introduced a laser-based system in November 2014 to target and destroy small drones or other aircraft within a 1.9 km range flying up to altitude of 500m with a speed of up to 180 km/h. In 2018, China unveiled its LW-30 combat system capable of incapacitating not only drones, but also small manned aircraft. The LW-30 uses a high-energy laser beam to destroy targets ranging from drones and guided bombs to mortar shells. It features high efficiency, rapid response, a good hit rate and flexibility. The LW-30 combat unit comprises one radar-equipped vehicle for communications and control on the battlefield and at least one laser gun-carrying vehicle and one logistical support vehicle. Simultaneously China displayed its 'Silent Hunter' drone at the KADEX 2018 in Kazakhstan capable of intercepting low-altitude, slow-speed aerial targets including drones; tactical laser weapon that could also be used by air defence forces whether on stationary or moving vehicles or naval vessels.
Once hostile drones are identified, they can be targeted by conventional weaponry and drones in counter drone mode but the threat more is just few drones. Terrorists supported by China-Pakistan could also resort to swarm drone attacks. Chinese media reported in September 2019 that China has developed a counter drone system consisting of multiple weapons and equipment including land based rockets and drone-hunting drones that can shoot huge webs and vehicle based detection devices, in addition to rifle-shaped counter-drone devices that shoot jamming signals to disrupt drones, bringing about either a forced landing or divert them.
In a recent exercise of PLA’s 73rd Army Group maneuvers involved the FN-6 portable anti-aircraft systems, compact anti-drone electronic guns, and twin towed 35mm Type 90 automatic cannons destroying a swarm of drones. In tactical operations, 9K331 Tor-M1 missile systems produced by the Izhevsk Electromechanical Plant Kupol fired at the simulated enemy. Defence against swarm drones, both by the military and other security agencies therefore requires much focus. We need to examine the threat of drone swarms de-novo and look at integrated defence against them incorporating ground, air, sea and space-based weapon systems.