Drones, Swarming and the Future of Warfare

This was the fifth meeting that the APPG for Future Generations held, in conjunction with the APPG for Drones and the APPG for International Security. This meeting report is co-authored by Caroline Baylon, Simon Hilton and Aditi Gupta.

The meeting heard from two speakers about:

'How the emergence of new drone technologies were changing the dynamics of war'

The first speaker was David Hambling, a journalist and Author of ‘Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world.’ David highlighted the disruptive influence of small drones. These can be distinguished from larger drones that are effectively remotely piloted aircraft that require a similar level of personal and resources to construct, maintain and run them. Small drones typically cost thousands rather than millions of dollars, can be developed rapidly and have the potential for autonomous operation. They are disrupting warfare by increasing the viability and power of limited strike actions and increasing the potential for asymmetrical warfare.

Small drones can operate in ‘swarms’, defined not only by the number of drones being used for an operation but their ability to precisely coordinate actions. They also have the potential to deliver a warhead or other destructive payload directly to the target, including autonomously locking onto targets and delivering an explosive payload directly to them in a highly precise manner. This degree of precision, combined with the ability to abort a strike right up until the point of detonation or impact, means that drones are now usable in situations in which traditional weapons would be impermissible.

However, small drones are also making new kinds of highly targeted and coordinated attack feasible

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For instance, a series of highly precise coordinated strikes on electricity substations has the potential to knock out an area’s electricity grid very effectively (this scenario was discussed at our previous event on infrastructure resilience). Similarly, as has already happened in theatres of war, precisely targeted strikes on munition dumps and oil facilities allow even very small payloads, such as a single grenade, to include considerable amounts of damage. Such attacks are extremely hard to guard against. Similarly drones can be used to disrupt targets they would find it hard to destroy, for instance by grounding aircraft on a carrier ship or airbase without necessarily needing to cause it significant damage. Finally drones could be combined with facial recognition technology to deliver highly targeted strikes on individuals, even in public environments and against well defended targets.

Due to their cost small drones are already being developed by militaries who are traditionally not seen as leaders in global security such as Poland, Turkey, Belarus and Ukraine. Some of these militaries already have international order books and are in the process of developing their second or third generation of drone technology. Even where militaries do not have the capacity to develop drones of their own they are able to repurpose commercial drones for military purposes. This has helped drone technology to spread to non-state actors including ISIS, Houthi groups in the Yemen civil war and even and Mexican drug cartel. While such actors are naturally at a technological disadvantage it seems like the availability of drones could open up new strategies of asymmetrical conflict and insurgency that existing powers may find hard to counter.

The second speaker was Sebastian Brixey-Williams of the British American Security Information Council and British Pugwash. He focused on marine drones, both Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs). These receive significantly less attention than their airborne cousins could be just as significant within the international security context.

UUVs and USVs are currently developing rapidly, especially due to improvements in batteries (which extend their duration and range of functioning) and deep neural networks (which improve their ability to sense what is going on around them and to act autonomously).

One of the key impacts of marine drones will be in antisubmarine efforts. This involves detecting, tracking and disrupting submarines. Antisubmarine work is presently extremely difficult and costly and it is thought that most submarines currently go undetected. However, could be a game changer in all three aspects of this work, and due to their size and design are themselves much harder to detect. The US has developed a prototype UUV called SHARK (Submarine Hold at Risk) which shows a lot of promise and is used for submarine hunting.

China also appears to be developing an army of small USVs for surface swarming in naval warfare. A promotional video produced by Chinese company Oceanalpha demonstrated the use of 56 of their drones for surface swarming with very precise co-location such as writing Chinese characters on the surface of the ocean. While produced ostensibly for commercial purposes, businesses in China are much closer to the Chinese government than other parts of the world, so this video is widely seen as presenting China’s capacity to produce a ‘shark swarm’ that can be used in sea battles and military patrols. In particular the coordinated placement of such drones could make it far harder for submarines to enter a naval area that is surrounded by a small number of chokepoints, such as the greater South China Sea, without detection.

At present one of the greatest concerns with evolving marine drone technology is that they will make it possible to detect, track and disrupt nuclear submarines, effectively neutralising their second-strike capability and thus destabilizing international nuclear security. It seems like nuclear submarines currently being developed, including the Dreadnought, could become vulnerable to this within a comparatively short time period, and far sooner than their expected operational lifespans. However, it is likely that other nations submarines would be easier to detect, with Arihant class being the most vulnerable.

There is thus a need for strategic dialogue on the issue of naval drones, and especially multistakeholder dialogue between states with the most developed technologies. This should cover the following kinds of question:

 

  • What is the scale of drone technology likely to develop?

  • How do these technologies interact with other technologies?

  • What status do they have in international law?

  • Can we agree to certain codes of conduct that contribute to greater predictability?

  • Can states agree not to use them against nuclear submarines as a nuclear risk reduction measure?

Witnesses
David Hambling

Journalist and Author of ‘Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world'

Sebastian Brixey-Williams

Co-director of the British American Security Information Council

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