The US Navy wants to send thousands, not dozens, of drones into battle. Their sheer number should stifle any resistance. But the drones have to be super-cheap. It is questionable how the US military intends to do this.

The war in Ukraine showed the importance of drones in warfare. Small and inexpensive drones, which can be procured in large numbers, play a special role. Russia is currently using swarms of Iranian-design drones. Their large number makes it difficult for a classic air defense to shoot them down.

The US Navy wants to go one step further on this concept: The super swarm it is planning should not consist of dozens but of thousands of mini-drones, reports the “MIT Technology Review”. The Navy does not officially comment on the project, the “MIT Technology Review” has tracked it down in the budget plans.

An important characteristic of the super swarm is its collective swarm intelligence. It should be about more than just a large number of drones that just “stupidly” fly next to each other. Like a flock of birds, the group should be able to act together and exchange information with each other.

Small payload, short range

Each drone can only carry a small payload. Their attacks would be very different from those of large explosive devices. Drones with different equipment are mixed together in the swarm. They can carry sensors, jammers, or warheads. The super swarm is so appealing to the military because it cannot currently be intercepted. “Swarms could breach the strongest existing defenses; dozens or hundreds of drones could be shot down, but thousands would get through to knock out air defense radar and other defenses. This would open the way for attacks with cruise missiles, manned aircraft and other conventional weapons,” writes the review. The only problem is that drones have an advantage today, but defensive weapons should be developed relatively quickly. A super swarm could not be intercepted by conventional means, but microwaves and electronic interference could bring down all of its drones.

You shouldn’t expect too much from the performance of the individual mini drones, the planned super swarm is only feasible if the individual drones are very cheap. Not only does the small size result in a small payload, but range is also limited. The 6-kilogram Raytheon Coyote can only fly for two hours at a speed of just 80 kilometers per hour, the review reports.

Can the US military also cheap?

This significantly limits the scope of use. A surprise attack is hardly conceivable with the speed. The Navy would also endanger any ship that approaches the scene so close. The super swarm therefore needs some kind of ark or mothership that will bring it to the target and from which thousands of small drones will then launch. These motherships have yet to be developed. And they not only have to ensure the launch and transport of the super swarm, they also have to be protected against attacks. One hit on the mothership could take out the entire swarm.

The biggest challenge of the project are the prices. The US Army’s backpack drones cost almost $50,000 each – the Super Swarm drones are said to be more powerful and far cheaper. There is also the question of which AI provides the intelligence of the swarm. If the swarm acts autonomously, the drones must share this intelligence. Which inevitably makes the individual drone more expensive, and the hardware will also be lost when deployed. In any case, drone swarms or even super swarms will play a role in future wars. So far, the US military has not been noticed as a frugal householder, hefty price increases are the rule. China will probably be more likely to produce effective drones at mini prices.

Quelle: MIT Technology Review