Swarm Warning: The Future of Unmanned Aerial Systems

By David MillerSeptember 21, 2020

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. –The U.S. Army’s Mad Scientist Initiative is leading a series of virtual events studying autonomy across all domains and the talent and skills required to operate in this future operational environment. On September 16, 2020, Mad Scientist Initiative hosted an online panel on the Future of Unmanned Aerial Systems. Featured panelists included, Sam Bendett (advisor, CNA), Zak Kellenborn (Senior Consultant, ABS Group), and David Goldstein (Acting Branch Chief for the Precision Targeting & Integration Branch and a Counter-UAS Team Lead, Army Futures Command, Combat Capabilities Development Command, Armaments Center. The webinar discussed observations and insights regarding the progress of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Counter-UAS (C-UAS) capabilities, and these systems' future.

According to U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Pamphlet 525-92, “Unmanned systems, including advanced battlefield robotic systems acting both autonomously and as part of a wider trend in man-machine teaming, will account for a significant percentage of a combatant force. Swarms of small, cheap, scalable, and disposable unmanned systems will be used both offensively and defensively, creating targeting dilemmas for sophisticated, expensive defensive systems. Swarming systems on the future battlefield will include not only unmanned aerial systems (UAS) but also swarms across multiple domains with the self-organizing, self-reconstituting, autonomous, ground, maritime (sub and surface), and subterranean unmanned systems.”

TRADOC believes that UASs will become increasingly prevalent on the battlefield. The increasing autonomy, democratization, as seen in affordability or in home-built drones can enable mal-actors to use UASs for various roles. Specifically, in observation, damage to infrastructure or critical weapon systems, and targeting of personnel. Goldstein cautions, “UAS pose a significant threat to our warfighters at all echelons,” especially at fixed site and base defense, mobile/vehicle/ship defense, and squad and individual warfighter defense.

The three panelists agree that drone swarms are of the most significant concern.

"With swarms, the possibilities are almost limitless of what they can do, what damage they can do, and that will stress our defenses and warfighters. These types of threats have never been seen before, and we don't know the extent of what they are capable of,” said Goldstein.

In a recently published article by Kallenborn, he talked about devolving counter-drone systems to the lowest organizational level possible.

“The potential low cost, broad proliferation of drone swarms mean low-level military units must be prepared to respond.  The United States should consider providing counter-drone systems all the way down to the fire team level. Of course, considerations related to the relative risk of drones versus other threats and the loss of any replaced capabilities,” said Kallenborn.

Goldstein echoed that in counter-UAS, detection is avoidable because the adversaries are evolving and can avoid common detection methods utilized today. That is to say, something novel and new will not be in our threat-based libraries. There is no silver bullet when it comes to C-UAS.  The best C-UAS system utilizes the strengths of various types of sensors and effectors.

“UAS can be considered the “next evolution in IEDs,” says Goldstein. Some of the similarities between IEDs and UASs are that both are hard to identify, detect, and deter. In UAS, this is seen due to frequency hopping encryption, cellular communication, and satellite communication, which conceals communication between the operator and the UAS.

Presenters highlighted several ways that the asymmetric threat is more complicated to deal with the current tactics, techniques, and procedures. The cheap, easy to obtain, easy to operate UASs can be modified for nefarious purposes, while foreign militaries continue to develop UASs to serve in varying roles.  Kallenborn spoke about the drone attack on the Saudi Arabian oil refinery last year. “The attack caused a five percent drop in global oil production, which represents real money and actual value.”

Russia's development of UASs has shifted from its dependence on outside manufacturers.

“Russia’s use of unmanned military systems and especially its UASs in Syria allowed Russia to log tens of thousands of flying hours. The Russian military establishment acknowledges that today’s combat for the Russian military, and probably other militaries, is unthinkable without UAVs,” said Bendett.

As Russia increases its production of UASs for military use, depending on the missions the Russian military requires, its purpose will expand beyond the ground forces and air forces.

By using a “system of systems approach,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Sean A. Gainey, director of the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems office, said the C-sUAS office initially gauged 40 systems needed to primarily detect, access, and engage with enemy drones. That initial list whittled down to seven defense systems, and one streamlined command and control, or C2, system.

In what will likely make procuring systems easier and faster, the Army, in November of 2019 was tapped to be the executive agent for the Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft System office to counter hostile drone systems.

Previous Mad Scientist Initiative events have focused on future learning, bioengineering, disruptive technologies, megacities, and dense urban areas and identifying other opportunities for further assessment and experimentation.

More information about the Mad Scientist Initiative can be found at https://madsciblog.tradoc.army.mil/