Drones seem to have been the hot weapon of warfare for the past twenty years, and nothing could prove that more than the recent conflict in Ukraine. The U.S. military recognizes this and has big plans in store, as our Defense Editor recently explained: The US military sends swarms of mini-drones into the skies to test whether they are better at delivering explosive payloads or excel at reconnaissance activities. The drone swarm will also be rated on combat damage assessment and artillery targeting. Hopefully, army drones can accomplish all of the above.
They are called “Air Launched Effects” – mini-drones which the military hopes will “revolutionize” its aviation branch and increase “the speed, range, vision and lethality of military air fleets”.
What’s up with these drone swarms?
Air-launched effects were tested in the Utah desert at Dugway Proving Ground during the Army’s annual EDGE Wargame. Air launch effects were used in the 2020 version of Exercise EDGE by firing them from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The swarm drone is also known as the ALTIUS-900 and Army personnel have tested ranges of up to 286 miles for the ALTIUS. The small unmanned craft has a payload of nine inches and can loiter for at least four hours. Some call the new drones a kind of killer “wolfpack”
Teamwork is the source of a dream job
The ALTIUS completed an individual use case in previous exercises, now the military currently wants to study these drones and how they interact with each other in swarms.
The branch calls this “smart team” and it comes down to the individual soldier deciding how best to deploy a swarm air launch effect. Should it be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or should it be used to blow up an enemy vehicle? How many drones should be used in the swarm? These questions come down to the analysis of firefighting teams, squads and platoons working with aviation assets. Each of these units must decide how many air launch effects are needed to accomplish the mission with each soldier’s contribution.
The future of drone warfare
Swarm trials are made up of groups of 30 drones. Air launch effects not only have tactical uses at the battalion level and below, but drone swarms also fit into the army’s vision of future warfare.
Dan Goure, writing in Real Clear Defense, described a scenario like this. “A future high-level conflict with Russia or China will be a fast-paced, intensive, and highly lethal combat environment. Our adversaries have built an integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) infrastructure designed largely to counter US areas of advantage, prevent US forces from operating in the weapons engagement zone of their adversaries and threaten American platforms and systems that seek to come within range of their adversary.
Can the military make Air Launched Effects a regular feature on the battlefield? Ease of use is the centerpiece. The first step would be to have clear communication from the ground with the army aviation above. Swarms of drones could be launched from utility helicopters or attack helicopters.
Next comes a determination of the battlefield by subordinate units working with battalion commanders for situational awareness. Then it would be about choosing the right mission setting for the drones – be it attack mode, reconnaissance or targeting data collection. Then receive a battle damage assessment for a picture of the battlefield beyond the horizon. This process would be repeated as long as the swarm is in the air.
Integration is a challenge, but the effort is worth it
You can see how difficult it will be for the military to integrate drone swarms into infantry or armor doctrine. But swarms are exciting. The set of missions is vast. They will be inexpensive to produce and easy to maintain. This is not a problem if some are lost due to enemy counter action. The components are modular to better integrate new technologies for swarms. The battlefields in Ukraine are filled with many types of drones. It’s only a matter of time before the swarms enter the mix as well.
Now as 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.