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
), are easier to apply from multiple angles, and can
be massed in larger numbers. Iran
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
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. Iran
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?
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.
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
disrupt (and take control?) our UAV comms to large, much more sophisticated UAVs. Iran
- 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)Military.com website, “Navy to Demo Swarming Drones at Sea in July”, Hope Hodge Seck,
(2)Naval Drones website,