Thursday, November 17, 2016

UAV Swarm Attack

Technology marches on.  Is the small boat swarm attack still the best type of swarm attack for an enemy to use against the Navy (see, "Swarm Attack")?  As an alternative or complement, what about a suicidal UAV swarm attack?  Small UAVs are very inexpensive, much harder to hit due to their small size (though more susceptible to burst munitions), harder to detect and target, require no exposure of personnel (not necessarily a concern for Iran), are easier to apply from multiple angles, and can be massed in larger numbers.

On a related note, the Navy’s ONR (Office of Naval Research) is triumphantly demonstrating its LOCUST (Low Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology) UAV swarm technology.  Currently, the swarm consists of many 12-14 lb Raytheon Coyote mini-UAVs, each costing around $15,000.  The Navy sees this as the future of warfare.  The swarms are envisioned to be able to penetrate any defense due to sheer numbers.  The Navy is looking to conduct the same kind of swarm attacks that Iran is planning on!  The problem with this approach is that it’s too easy to counter and the Navy is not conducting realistic tests that would demonstrate this.

How will these swarms work?

"We'll launch large numbers of them, doing swarm operations, flying around, doing a number of different flight profiles, then doing a land recovery," Mastroianni [Lee Mastroianni, ONR's program manager for LOCUST]said. "We're flying them in different flight configurations where they're in very tight, and then they're going to change the relationship they all are to one another."

The swarming technology allows the drones to relate to each other spatially and fly their swarm formations with minimal human direction or intervention, which Mastroianni noted is key for practical and efficient unmanned technology that decreases the warfighter's burden.

"We have an operator that's monitoring it, keeping eyes on what's going on, and can reach in and change things if they want to," he said. "But the reality is, [the drones are] flying themselves, they're performing their mission and the operator's supervisory. So it tremendously reduces the workload to be able to control large numbers of UAVs." (1)

So, the swarm will consist of large numbers of relatively tightly packed UAVs maintaining their spatial separations from each other.  They’ll behave like a flock of birds.  The operator only needs to control one “leader” to control the movement of the flock/swarm.

What are the characteristics of an individual drone?

“The one meter long UAV was designed to be launched from a standard A-size sonobuoy tube of a helicopter or maritime patrol aircraft. After ejection, a parachute deploys and the UAV unfolds its X-wings to begin its electrically-powered flight.

Coyote can transfer full motion video up to 37 km (20 nm) using a 2 watt S-band transmitter. The vehicle has a 90 minute endurance at a 60 knot cruise speed and can operate at altitudes up to 20,000 feet. “ (2)

What is the impact of such a swarm?

“ONR wrapped up a series of land tests this week with an experiment atYuma Proving Ground, Arizona, where 31 of the 12-14 pound Coyotes were tube-launched in approximately 40 seconds and proceeded to conduct a series of swarm formations and maneuvers, Vice Adm. Rick Breckenridge, deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, told an audience at the Pentagon on Friday.

"It's going to change some of the calculus of how we operate," Breckenridge said of the technology.” (1)

The idea is that sheer numbers will overwhelm any enemy’s defenses and if an individual drone is shot down the remainder will adjust to compensate.

Wow!!!!  A swarm that can’t be stopped!  What could be better?  Just for fun, though, before we change our calculus, shouldn’t we at least conduct some realistic tests?  Shouldn’t we fly these swarms against an enemy that fights back?  Shouldn’t we explore the kinds of defenses that might evolve to counter these swarms before we totally commit to them only to find out that the counters were so effective that the completely and cheaply negated our technology?  Shouldn’t we take a second look before leaping, lemming-like, off the technology cliff?

Coyote Swarm?

This is what is so dangerous about having people running the Navy who blindly lunge after the latest shiny toy.  I’m not an expert in this field, by any means, but the counters look all too obvious, cheap, and easy.  For example,

  • Fragmentation shells are tailor made for a tight packed swarm.  A single bursting shell would decimate a swarm.  These 12-14 pound UAVs certainly have no armor or resistance to shrapnel bursts.  If we spread the swarm out to counter fragmentation shells then the single point of control is lost and each individual drone has to be controlled.  Even then, the individual drones are highly susceptible to burst munitions.  Remember, these 12-14 pound UAVs aren’t exactly going to be flying at Mach + speeds.  They’ll be very slow, target drones.  The slow rate of approach of the swarm allows the defender to target the drones in a leisurely manner.

  • Electronic countermeasures can “cut” the communications and control cord to the swarm.  The problem with a swarm of this type is that if you lose the single point of control, you lose the entire swarm.  We’ve apparently seen lowly Iran disrupt (and take control?) our UAV comms to large, much more sophisticated UAVs. 

  • Obscurants can blind the swarm.  The small drones can’t carry a radar and depend on simple optics that are susceptible to smoke and broad spectrum obscurants.

In addition to trying to anticipate countermeasures, has anyone asked about the effectiveness of these drones even if they make it to their target?  A 12-14 pound UAV would have, what, a 1 pound warhead?  That’s not exactly going to sink a ship or destroy an airbase.

Has anyone thought about the range of the drones?  A practical range looks to be around 60 miles.  A launching ship that is within 60 miles of the enemy has probably been under attack for quite a while.  Further, with a cruise speed of 60 knots, the swarm attack will take an hour or so to reach its target.  The launching ship will have long since been destroyed or will have destroyed the enemy through other means like an anti-ship cruise missile.

Now understand me clearly – there is nothing inherently wrong with drones or swarm attacks if we properly and realistically test them and develop realistic operational concepts (CONOPS) to employ them.  If we can do that and the results still look encouraging then, by all means, let’s pursue them.  However, the counters look obvious and easy.  Our refusal to develop viable CONOPS and conduct realistic tests sounds all too much like our failure to develop a CONOPS for the LCS and look how that turned out.  The Navy is so obsessed with the pursuit of technology for its own sake that they don’t even bother to examine whether it is actually useful. 

We simply must begin injecting reality into our planning and it starts with CONOPS and testing.


(1) website, “Navy to Demo Swarming Drones at Sea in July”, Hope Hodge Seck, 24-Jun-2016,

(2)Naval Drones website,


  1. Swarm numbers can present larger radar returns.

    Whereas, a single loitering fire-and-forget autonomous Harpy or Harop or Green Dragon can preserve a higher degree of stealth and surprise.

  2. Anti-drone $150 rifle was demoed at AUSA last March by the Army Cyber Institute of West Point, using an antenna, wi-fi radio and Raspberry Pi computer, shot down a quadcopter at feet of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The FAA are holding trials on three systems to protect airports (Gryphon Sensors, Liteye Systems AUDS & Sensofusion)

    Many companies large and small are offering anti-drone/UAV systems, they see it as an expanding market.

    1. was this a computer controlled system? If thats the case, the $150 rifle (really? they retail rifles for $150? Sheesh, no wonder Americans have a gun problem) was less than a percent of the total cost of the system. The only way what you described is a $150 system is if there was a human operating the rifle. In which case he's got a snowballs chance in hell of hitting a manoeuvring computer controlled drone.
      Hitting a dumb commercial offering flying in a sedate straight line while seated in a comfy chair is one thing. Replicate that at sea under real world conditions, not so much.

  3. Chinese or Iranians will quickly copy our backpack jamming systems. For the cost of a couple of thousand dollars (maybe even cheaper since China has excess electronics capacity), they can disrupt a swarm of $15000 drones.

  4. I’m going to agree with your post on the whole. It sounds invincible on the surface doesn’t it, but it really isn’t, if you have enough automatic shotguns and people to man them.

    Just to flesh out your piece a little thought.

    The swarm, and its swarming mechanism is autonomous. It’s intelligent in its movement and flight patterns.

    They don’t fly tight together, they automatically coordinate and fly as a pack or cloud, at quite some distance to each other, in some demos I’ve seen 100 meters+ is common, they do this to search wide areas.

    They are designed to work as 1 wide area animal with many eyes. Effectively acting as one. The control interface reflects this, and is NOT like a “predator” interface.

    They don’t exactly have 1 head you can cut off and they all fail, (that would be silly). You designate a leader if you like (not always necessary dependant on what you’re doing with them) if that leader were to go down they automatically default to the next in line. Until every drone is gone.

    The concept was a mix of sensors on a mix of drones, giving the “swarm” many capabilities as a whole entity. Data and on board capabilities would be shared. As would off board info. Presumably this would include specific attack drones with larger warheads.

    I think the concept is that your ship board helo or other asset would drop \ launch them just over the horizon and they would seek and attack targets from there.

    That’s about all I know, all of the above is Public Domain.

    I suspect a lot of the above is "sales brochure videos and info". EW and ECM would completely knobble the above. I hate to think what they would do when cut off from command \ the swarm, or like the Iranian incident, if they are "spoofed"


    1. I understand that they work as a swarm and do not rely on a COC to direct them. The weakness I see is the communications between the swarm. If you jam the radio signals between the UAVs, the whole swarm is relegated to whatever they have programmed in case of lost comms - that is why I said their effectiveness is degraded, not eliminated

    2. You've reinforced the premise of the post that further swarm development should be dependent on realistic testing and CONOPS. Could there be a useful CONOPS? It's possible but we don't have it, yet, so why continue to develop a piece of equipment that may, ultimately, not prove useful? Develop the CONOPS first and if it seems useful, then develop the hardware.

      For instance, your comment was mostly geared at a search role. In that role, a swarm may (or may not) be useful. In an attack role, which was the basis of the linked article, a swarm may (or may not) be useful. My post suggests not.

      Regarding spacing, for a surveillance role, wide spacing may be fine. For an attack, the swarm concept breaks down a bit because now every member has a different path as opposed to the flock behavior. Also, the swarm has to come together to a large degree to attack. You can't be spread out across many miles. You have to come to a point - the point being the target - and that forces a contraction of the swarm, if they aren't already.

      Also, don't fall victim to insufficient tactical thinking. Think about your comment regarding dropping the swarm just over the horizon (can't be done by helo due to the size of the UAV but we'll set that aside). The range of the UAV is around 60 miles. Is it worth the effort and cost of deploying a swarm to look just over the horizon for 60 miles or is it easier to just have the helo that's already there pop up a little higher and move a little further and check with it's radar? We keep wanting to come up with complex technology to accomplish simple, straightforward tasks that we can already do quite well.

    3. "They don’t fly tight together"

      You caught the bit in the linked article about flying in "tight formation", right? Of course, "tight" is a relative term. I got the impression that they were talking about a flock formation rather then a spread out formation which is what you described. Of course, there's no reason why a spread formation can't work other than the reasons I already mentioned in the previous comment.

    4. I agree that the drone swarm is unlikely to be productive in attacking a modern surface adversary. However, I do believe the drone swarm could be useful against an Iranian style fast boat swarm.

      Let me take a first stab at a Conops. UDN detects a swarm of fast boats attacking a Burke. The DDG launches small drones which out number the attack boats. The drones use a thermobaric warhead to kill the two or three crew members on each small boat. The drone video can also provide damage and threat assessment to direct fire against any remaining craft.

    5. CNO
      tight formation while flying at 100kph does not mean shoulder to shoulder. a distance of 100 meters between each drone is tight when you have a few dozen flying at v max in close proximity.
      I think you may be reading this a little too literally.

      An air burst shell would likely only neutralise that one drone, if that, not to mention, having computer controlled drones, equates to a computer controlled reaction, to wit, they may be able to dodge an incoming round...

      Realistically, i can think of 2 ways to neutralise a swarm. The starting point is of course Jamming. Having said that, so far, all the stuff that the east has produced and sold to the 3rd world as a means of negating western smart weapons has so far failed. Whatever they've got up their sleeved should they ever need to defend against US modern electronics, well, lets just say we haven't seen it yet. Small hint at how effective it is, Georgian imported Israeli drones, while not jammed out of the sky, were certainly shot out of the sky with alarming regularity by Russian forces. But, that entails expensive missiles. Certainly more than $15k per drone. For once, a western weapons system running on the eastern ethos of quantity has its own quality.

      The other counter i could think of would be a laser based anti drone system. Like CNO correctly pointed out, these aren't armoured, or hardened, so a computer controlled/targeted laser would likely be able to knock these out in fairly short order, and as they are limited in speed, i can imagine a laser destroying an entire swarm using only a few seconds per shot, so a swarm of 25 drones destroyed in under a minute.... at 100kph, in a minute, those drones would only cover about 1 mile... more than enough distance to counter and entire swarm, even with lasers limited range.

      As Anon said, a swarm does rather effectively work cheaply in a colonial type warfare scenario. Perhaps you've not understood that this may not be a near peer defeating system, rather, the cheap anti peasant mechanism modern states are craving?

    6. I think they are thinking in terms of 100 or more drones for this to have any realistic effect. With a preprogrammed 360 encircling saturation attack.

      Having said all that I agree that this does stink slighty of doing "cool" things, for the sake of cool things.

      The range and endurance + theoretical warhead size seems out of whack for me ?

      Scan Eagle's might make a better platform in my mind, but possibly I'm missing something.

    7. Ben, here's a couple things to ponder. First, you're attributing a level of performance to these swarms that I've not seen documented anywhere. A preprogrammed 360 encircling saturation attack is not a capability I've read about. I've only read about simple, tight, formation flying. If you've seen something documenting more advance maneuvers such as you're describing, send me a link!

      Now, it's not a huge leap to imagine programming more advanced maneuvers but that also brings with it more advanced challenges and capabilities that a "dumb" swarm may not have. For instance, it's one thing for a single "controlled" drone to be given a target location by a ground controller and every other drone follow closely along but it's another to expect or attempt to control dozens of individual drones separated by many miles in an encircling maneuver and successfully guide them to the target. Remember, they don't have much in the way of area sensing! Just saying, as you evaluate technologies be wary of attributing non-existent capabilities to them.

      Second, bear in mind that these are small, short range UAVs. I guesstimated a practical 60 mile range. However, if we're going to use a 360 deg encircling maneuver then we're going to use an additional several miles getting everyone into position so that 60 mile range becomes only a 50 mile usable range. That's also a fairly straight-line range. If we have to throw in a somewhat back and forth search pattern, that 50 mile range becomes, perhaps, 30-40 miles or less depending on the amount of searching that they did. The point is that we have to firmly keep in mind the tactical scenarios and realities as we evaluate these technologies. In this case, unless we know pretty much exactly where the enemy is before launch, or we get incredibly lucky and immediately stumble on the enemy right after launch (how'd they get that close? They've probably already sunk us!), the practical reality is that this is a very limited usefulness capability that sounds amazing on paper but far less so in the wild.

      Scan Eagles would be a better platform but their size precludes the kind of mass launching that a swarm requires. Also, costs start to go up.

      Lastly, what do we do if the swarm doesn't find a target? Do we recover them? If so, and they have to fly back to the launch point, that cuts the range in half. If we don't recover them, that's $15,000 x 40 (to pick a moderately large swarm size) = $600,000. That's a lot of money to throw away on a "let's take a look over the horizon just in case there's something there" mission. So, again, if we don't already know where the enemy is, the idea of a swarm roaming the ocean, sweeping the seas free of enemy ships, is just not practical.

      Have you thought about how we recover these things? Do they drop in the ocean and we send a RHIB out to fish them out, one by one? Do they fly into a recovery net, one at a time (5 minutes per drone x 40 = 3.3 hours for recovery - that's a long time to remain relatively stationary for a ship in combat).

    8. no no sorry, I should have been clearer, my second post is all theoretical, and based on defence site chat, not actual data.

      Complex swarming patter videos are common on youtube, but for civilian R&D not this tech.

      I was simply theorising on how this tech "should work" if you were to use them to attack, however as you state with this size drone there are some massively limiting factors, and it just doesn't pass the "sensible scan test"

      I picked scan eagle as its the kind of thing that might offer the performance needed to achieve a meaningful saturation attack, and can be recovered off the back of a frigate \ destroyer.

      But the practicalities of recovering 100 of these with the "skyhook" method , just boggles the mind.

      Its one of those really LIKABLE ideas, that once you get down to hard real world practicalities doesn't look quite so good.

      Finally your comments on expense, LOL
      Yes well .....

      I have at least 20 USN programs spring to mind more deserving of funds.


  5. The are AI networked.

    Don't cruise missiles (with extended wings) look like a bigger version of them, or fleets of old jets from bone yard, and/or can be re-made?

    1. No point. Well, actually what we read/saw, in public, is after fact; somebody already put in a lot of thoughts (i.e. future war planning), lots of experimentation, and here we are seeing just one facet out of many, of what 3rd-offset is (or, even how both sides are converging in thinking- if that's the case).

      Contrast this to your previous battleship-in-future-war (which I thoroughly enjoyed); it goes to show war preparation is not just a point, not just a line (2 points), not just a plane (3 points); it can even go back in time, a truly 4-Dimension affair.

    2. No point. OK. Well, let me try to prompt a point from you. You note that a lot of thought has already gone into the swarm concept. At least, I think that's what you were saying. Further, you seem to imply that lots of thought equates to a degree of wisdom (correct me if I'm misinterpreting your comment). So, now compare that to the LCS program which had lots of thought and produced an abject failure of a program. Does thought correlate to success? If not, why not? If not, what's the point of spending the time thinking? If not, what's missing from the thought process that would make it more effective and productive?

      I used the example of the LCS but there are many other failures that had a lot of thought. Don't focus on the LCS. Keep it general. Focus on the process of "thought" that seems to not be leading to successful programs.

      What do you think? Make a point!

    3. My point: in peace time, it is OK to try stuff, if you can afford it and manage (or as close to) it well, as long as you have a good strategic picture (of potential opposition) of a decade (or 2) into the future.

      According to wiki, LCS's idea was conceived about 10 years ahead of China's A2/AD and its blue water ambition. Thus, IMO, LCS not only suffered from mis-management; more importantly, it was conceived wrong, in hind sight (however, China-rise was/is a development more in the realm of geo-ideal-eco-realpolitik, of which military was a subset.)

      Back to UAV swarm,

      1. back in October you had a piece about UCAV AI; combine that with AI carrier landing and refueling (X47B) technology, and the supposed F-35's motherhening its unmanned flock. All the disparate pieces are there; it just need somebody to knit them together. Therefore, when I saw that video and this here piece, I saw AI (i.e. its very near realized potential) and not the swarm hardware.

      2. Militarily, I don't see a different(or bigger) challenge than China a decade or two from now. Therefore, US is preparing for the correct opposition.

  6. I am slightly glad that they are doing this, because you can't reliably develop defensive tactics without an idea of how the offensive tactics work. So even if we never decide to deploy this type of capability, the information gathered should be useful to help defend against others who may.

    Randall Rapp

    1. That's a great observation, Randall, but it only applies if we actually test in a realistic manner and that's something the Navy is organizationally reluctant to do.

      Good comment!

  7. If nothing else, this seems like a good way to approach speculative technologies. Develop it in a low-cost program like this, then in a few years we've got something mature and well-understood that can be applied to future systems. Certainly better than the "concurrency" approach.

    If this works, it paves the way to a more expensive system using the same ideas with heavier drones. For now, this looks like a low-cost way to try out an unknown technology.

    Even at this size, useful for supporting land operations? For $800,000 the Marines can get a single shot from the Zumwalt, or have a flock of 50 of these guys loitering overhead, each with about the same umph as an 81mm mortar round.

    1. "Certainly better than the "concurrency" approach."

      Quite right!

      "have a flock of 50 of these guys loitering overhead, each with about the same umph as an 81mm mortar round."

      You may be misunderstanding the limits of this concept. The concept was a group of drones operating as a reflection of one central controlled drone. That way, there is no need to control all the drones. They can, for instance, all impact against a single target by following the master drone into the target.

      Trying to extend the concept to a loitering cloud of drones would require that each one be given an individual target which would require individual control. That would invalidate the "flock" concept. That's not to say it couldn't be done but it would require a completely different concept. Also, the endurance of this size drone is 90 minutes. If you don't find a target within that time period, you crash into the ground. Unless there is a wealth of obvious targets, that's not a lot of time! It would make more sense to simply blanket the area with naval gunfire (an argument for heavier naval guns!) or use actual mortars or artillery. Too often, the US military ties itself in knots trying to use a complex technology to accomplish tasks that can be done by much simpler means.

    2. I didn't see anything that says the drones in the swarm have reduced individual capability, and the press releases emphasize that a human can step in and take control when needed. So it's probably consistent with the swarm concept that the operator can order "break off one drone to attack these GPS coordinates."

      In any event, the concept of loitering ordnance struck me as one of the possible advantages. I'm also unconvinced this would be much better than just a plain old mortar. If the drones grow up to be Javlin or Hellfire class weapons I'd be more persuaded that this is a viable new CAS concept.

    3. "I'm also unconvinced this would be much better than just a plain old mortar. If the drones grow up to be Javlin or Hellfire class weapons I'd be more persuaded that this is a viable new CAS concept."

      I agree that for land application a mortar would more effective.

      The original concept was for anti-ship use rather than over land.

  8. So the navy is now developing a air launched mortar round with a6 0 Miller range.

    Wouldn't an anti ship missile be a better development goal or an CIWS with anti drone capabilities