What happens when a swarm of slow, low-performance drones attacks a modern warship? With defense systems able to knock down supersonic cruise missiles and fast jets, small drones ought to be a turkey shoot. In fact, the situation plays out very differently.
The U.S. Navy is a leader in the area of swarm warfare, the threat has been analyzed in a number of papers from the Naval Postgraduate School analyze the threat. Some of these are classified, but a 2012 paper by Loc Pham, “UAV Swarm Attack” is open and makes uncomfortable reading.
Dr. Lee Mastroianni, LOCUST’s project manager, believes the whole swarm can be made cheaper than a missile, and at $1.2 million for a Harpoon anti-ship missile he may be right. Locust is currently based on $15,000 Coyote drones. Of course these carry a much smaller warhead — but accurate targeting may be more important than the size of the warhead that hits. Knock out a ships’ radar, and it is a sitting duck for other weapons.
Mastroianni plans to have the his first swarm of 30 drones flying next summer.
The UAV Swarm Attack study highlighted the weakness of current defenses against swarms of drones. Timothy Chung, a scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, is looking at defensive swarms to take out the attackers. His project’s official name is “A System-of-systems Testbed for Unmanned Systems Swarm versus Swarm Development and Research,” but Chung calls it “Aerial Combat Swarms.”
Chung is staging a contest for swarms of small drones carry out simulated battles as a way of evaluating tactics and technology. His basic scenario is a 50-versus-50 encounter in which the Blue defenders attempt to stop Red attackers from getting through. Nobody knows much about drone-versus-drone combat yet, especially on this scale. How much autonomy do the drones need? How can the swarm commander stay in control in a fast-moving action? How do quality and quantity balance out in battling swarms?