Why Swarm Troopers?

From the Introduction

The Farnborough International Airshow is a big event in the aviation world’s calendar. Every two years the whole industry gets together for a week to make deals, scope out the competition, show off their latest wares and talk shop. The highlight of Farnborough 2014 was supposed to be the public debut of the F-35 Lighting II, a stealth warplane from Lockheed Martin.

Unfortunately, engine problems left the F-35 fleet grounded. The only one at Farnborough was a display model for people to sit in and have their picture taken.

Airpower is so dominant in modern wars that in a sense the F-35 represents the future of warfare, the cutting edge of the world’s most formidable fighting machine. The US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plan on buying about two and a half thousand F-35s between them, at between $100 million and $200 million per plane. The exact price is fiercely debated, as we shall see. The aircraft’s no-show was symptomatic of the many problems experienced during development, but the largest aircraft purchase in US history has gone too far to stop now. Allies including the UK, Italy, Israel, South Korea and Turkey have already placed their orders.

While the F-35 was absent, a much smaller aircraft did make its debut at Farnborough. The Micro Drone 2.0 is a palm-sized flying toy with four rotors. A salesman was showing how well it flew, automatically righting itself after being tossed into the air. He was doing a brisk trade, selling boxed drones over the counter at $85 apiece. What made the Micro Drone so appealing was a video camera that turned it from a toy into a tool.

“Everybody wants one because they’re such great gadgets,” the salesman told me. “And because you can actually do practical things like check the guttering, you can justify buying one to your wife.”

The tiny Micro Drone did not seem to have much in common with the thundering jets tearing up the sky outside. However, it was similar to military quadrotors on display, which were slightly bigger, tougher, and more expensive versions of the same camera-carrying design. Their fixed-wing counterparts, looking like radio-controlled models with a four-foot wingspan, have become one of the soldier’s most trusted tools (see Chapter 3: Ruse of the Raven). Moving up from these are larger drones like the Puma, Scan Eagle, and Shadow, resembling light aircraft.

Step outdoors at Farnborough and you could see the next size up, the Predator and the Reaper, armed drones that spy and carry out strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. These are still small fry in the aviation world and not regarded as real aircraft by some Farnborough attendees. The F-35 is six times the weight of the Reaper, as well as being faster, stealthier, more agile, and able to carry a much greater load of weapons. At a fundamental level though, they are both warplanes doing the same job, although in one case the pilot stays on the ground.

A souped-up Micro Drone can also carry out a military mission, scouting out the enemy’s position from a distance. Small drones can carry a lethal explosive warhead; US Special Forces have used them in Afghanistan against insurgent leaders known as “high value targets.” The question is not whether small drones are useful, it’s how useful they are compared to manned aircraft.

Money brings the issue into sharp focus. Small drones, notably the DJI Phantom series, are already transforming television and movie making by providing stable camera platforms at bargain basement rates. It costs less to buy one outright than to hire a helicopter for an hour, and they can film in urban canyons and other places where no helicopter can fly.

This book focuses on what a swarm of thousands or tens of thousands of small drones can do, at a fraction of the cost of a single F-35. Given the rate at which the technology is developing, and how evolution favors small drones with their short generation times, manned jets are on the losing side. The technology developed for smartphones puts the big guns on the side of the small drones.

Ten years ago, I wrote Weapons Grade: the Links Between Modern Warfare and Our High Tech World, about the high tech in everyday life that originated with the military. From GPS and the Internet to digital cameras and jet airliners, all sorts of gadgets were originally developed for war. The building blocks of modern electronics, integrated circuits and microprocessors came from the defense sector. It used to be something of a cliché to say that whether it was computers or aircraft, the Pentagon was always twenty years ahead of what was commercially available. You could see the future by looking at what the military had.

In the last decade, the situation has changed. It’s not all about iPhones, although Apple’s groundbreaking smartphone and record-breaking profits are obvious indicators of strength. Smartphone sales have accelerated from zero in 2006 to over a billion smartphones shipped in 2013 alone. Calling them phones is deceptive: each one has more computing power than previous desktop computers, as well as a digital video camera, GPS navigation, digital communications, and a stack of other sensors.

The mobile phone industry has the power and momentum of a freight train. Billions of dollars are spent annually on advancing technology just for small electronic devices. Aggressive schedules see a new generation appear every two years. It’s a competitive, fast-moving market. New algorithms, new technologies, and new capabilities are being developed all the time. A new phone that merely delivers incremental improvement over the previous generation is a letdown; every phone is now expected to be astonishing.

In the course of this market-fueled acceleration, consumer electronics have outstripped their military counterparts. These days soldiers are less likely to be awestruck at the gadgetry they are issued than shocked by how clunky it is compared to the sleek lightweight devices they have at home.

Defense contractors argue that their products cannot be compared with consumer electronics. They have to comply with demanding standards that smartphones are not subject to –rugged enough to survive the battlefield, able to withstand high and low temperatures, can’t create electronic noise, interfacing with existing military systems. Selling to the military means extensive testing and certification, with the delays and cost that go with them. Add to this a military bureaucracy that can take years to agree on the specification it wants in the first place, overseen by a political leadership that may cancel, delay, or divert any project depending on the shifting sands of expediency, and you have a recipe for a long time between generations.

Each generation of electronics roughly translates to a doubling of processing power, memory, pixels, or other relevant metrics. If a commercial product goes through a generation every two years, and the military cycle takes six years per generation, then in twelve years the military product goes from being four times as powerful as the competition to a quarter as powerful. The prospect for the military afterwards is watching disappearing taillights as their rivals pull ever further ahead. The military has recently started taking the obvious course of adapting commercial electronics rather than developing their own.

Smartphone technology has made electronics smaller, cheaper, and more capable than ever. Technologies developed for phones fit well with the requirements for small drones. Like phones, drones need miniature cameras, GPS navigation, and data processing power. Both share the same need for minimal size, weight, and power usage. A drone is simply a smartphone with wings, and the wings are the cheap part.

The stage is set for small military drones made with off-the-shelf electronics. Drones that will be cheap and plentiful, in contrast to the current generation costing tens of thousands of dollars apiece. And they are getting more powerful all the time. These are not just dumb, remote control aircraft but smart drones with a degree of autonomy.

A swarm of armed drones is like a flying minefield. The individual elements may not be that dangerous, but they are so numerous that they are impossible to defeat. They can be disabled one by one, but the cumulative risk makes it far safer to avoid them than to try to destroy them all. Minefields on land may be avoided; the flying minefield goes anywhere and can overwhelm any existing opposition.

Future drones will be able to draw energy from the environment and recharge themselves. Thousands of them will operate as a single swarm requiring just one operator – or none. And new developments in smart weaponry make swarms of small drones more lethal than anything yet seen.

There are high entry barriers to the military aircraft market. When the F-35 was being developed, there were only two consortia big enough to compete for the contract to build it. Few can keep up in a business where it costs billions to bring a product to market in a process that may take decades. This does not apply to small drones. Not only can the smallest of companies join in, university departments and hobbyists are building their own drones, often with innovative features. Advanced design software and 3-D printing mean that for a few dollars a new concept can go from fleeting thought to flying hardware in days. The F-35 is edging slowly towards service; meanwhile the Micro Drone 2.0 is already being replaced by the 3.0 version with several major advances like streaming HD video.

Small drones represent an astonishing opportunity. Military operations can be carried out with greater precision, with less collateral damage and less exposure of friendly troops than ever before. Small drones present a genuine challenge to the idea that we will always need “boots on the ground” in a military conflict. And they can do it cheaply. They are not just cheaper than planes, they cost less than current missiles and bombs.

Small drones also represent a serious threat. For reasons we will explore, existing weapons cannot stop them, and the flying minefield is likely to dominate in the air and on the ground. In the hands of hostile forces, a drone swarm could inflict massive damage – not just on the battlefield but against our cities.

Small drone evolution means that most powerful military in the world is no longer in control of the future of airpower. The ultimate weapon will be in the hands of anyone with access to smartphone technology. This includes other countries, as well as non-state actors like ISIS and Hezbollah and even the hacker group Anonymous.

Swarm Troopers explores how this has happened and what the future may bring.