|

U.S. Army’s New Drone Swarm May Be A Weapon Of Mass Destruction

‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ is a term used in arms-control circles signifying something capable of damage on a large scale and subject to international treaties. Analyst Zak Kallenborn argues in a recent study for the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies that some types of drone swarm would count as WMD. The argument might seem like the theoretical arms control equivalent of angels dancing on the head of a pin — except that the U.S. Army is working on a lethal swarm which fits Kallenborn’s description.

Skeet submunitions destroy target vehicles in test

U.S. Air Force

Current drones like the MQ-9 Reaper are controlled remotely, with a pilot flying the aircraft and a payload operator aiming and launching missiles. A battery of other personnel, including military lawyers and image analysts, look over their shoulders and argue what is or is not a valid target. (The movie Eye in the Sky brilliantly captured the military-political-legal wrangling during drone operations). Future drones may have more autonomy, flying and fighting with much less human supervision, in particular when many of them work together as a swarm.

Kallenborn, an expert in unmanned systems and WMD, describes one type of swarm that he calls an Armed, Fully-Autonomous Drone Swarm, or AFADS. Once unleashed an AFADS will locate, identify, and attack targets without human intervention. Kallenborn argues that an AFADS-type swarm is a genuine Weapon of Mass Destruction because of the amount of harm it can do and because of its inability to distinguish civilians from military targets. This is the type of swarm in the fictional 2017 viral video Slaughterbots released as a warning against autonomous weapons.

Like Terminators, such drones may look like science fiction. But the U.S. Army has been working on a Cluster UAS Smart Munition for Missile Deployment which looks like a real-world embodiment of AFADS.

The Cluster Swarm project is developing a missile warhead to dispense a swarm of small drones that fan out to locate and destroy vehicles with explosively formed penetrators or EFPs. (An EFP spits a high-speed slug of armor-piercing metal some tens or hundreds of meters). This is similar in concept to the existing CBU-105 bomb, a 1000-pound munition which scatters forty ‘Skeet’ submunitions each over the target area, each of which parachutes down, scanning the ground with a seeker until it finds a tank and fires an EFP at it; the picture above shows one test. CBU-105’s dropped by B-52 bombers successfully knocked out entire Iraqi tank columns in 2003, leading them to be termed ‘Cans of whup-ass.’ The Cluster Swarm would be vastly more powerful.

The Cluster Swarm involved drones packed into the Army’s existing GMLRS rockets, which carry a 180-pound payload and have a range of over 70 kilometers, or ATACMS missiles that carry a 350-pound payload over 270 kilometers. The original idea was that the missile payload would be quadcopter drones encased in an aerodynamic shell that would disperse them over the target area. However, the challenges of unfolding quadcopters mid-air may have been too great, as the Phase II development, recently completed, went to AVID LLC, who have a slightly different approach.

T-Hawk ducted-fan tactical drone

U.S. Navy

AVID are best known for their work with Honeywell on the T-Hawk drone, a tactical vertical take-off craft deployed in Iraq to help find IEDs in 2007. Affectionately known as the ‘flying beer keg,’ the T-Hawk has no external rotors but is powered by ducted fans inside the fuselage. AVID later produced the smaller EDF-8, an electrically-powered ducted-fan drone carrying a one-pound payload. The company would not provide comment on the drones developed for the new project.

The Cluster Swarm would be far more powerful than the existing CBU-105 ‘cans of whup-ass’ for two reasons. A CBU-105 can only hit targets in an area a few hundred meters across. The Cluster Swarm can go hunting for vehicles dispersed over many square miles.

The other advantage is efficiency. CBU-105 gives little overlap in search area for each warhead; many will not have a target, and where there is overlap two or more may attack the same tank and ignore others. A true swarm acting co-operatively will ‘de-conflict’ so forty drones always attack forty different targets.

If Cluster Swarm drones have EFP warheads similar to existing weapons, then each MLRS missile would release about ten drones. Each M270 MLRS vehicle fires twelve missiles in a salvo, for a hundred and twenty drones. So a battery of nine launch vehicles would deliver a thousand killer drones over the target area, enough in theory to stop an entire armored division in its tracks.

Would such a swarm constitute a WMD?

“The weapon could plausibly be classified as a weapon of mass destruction,” Kallenborn said. “However, it would depend on the number and payload of armed UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] within the swarm.”

Kallenborn says that as a rough rule of thumb, a swarm with munitions equivalent to a thousand M67 hand grenades would likely be in the WMD class. If it meets this threshold, then according to his new paper the swarm could be subject to international arms control law.

“Certainly off-course drones would have potential for considerable damage if they identified civilian vehicles as military ones,” says Kallenborn.

It is easy to see how an attack directed at a column of tanks might end up hitting a nearby refugee convoy with catastrophic results, destroying not just a few vehicles but dozens of them. This ought to be impossible, and the Pentagon ‘s Policy Directive 3000.09 is intended to ‘minimize the probability and consequences of failures in autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems that could lead to unintended engagements.’ But in war, mistakes happen.

However, proving whether it is a WMD or not could be difficult. How do you tell whether you are facing a single WMD-level swarm or a collation of smaller swarms?

“If swarms are WMD, verification and confidence measures might need to evaluate whether a set of drones are a single swarm or multiple. Evaluating whether the swarm is fully autonomous would also be a challenge,” says Kallenborn. 

Even if it is not deemed a WMD, any swarm with this sort of potential raises issues about how much autonomy is acceptable.

“The weapon illustrates the need to carefully consider what risks the United States is willing to accept,” says Kallenborn.

The Phase II development completed in March included “deployment…powered flight, acquisition of a representative target, and automated navigation to and landing on target” as well as a separate demonstration of the EFP warhead’s effectiveness. If the Army go ahead with Phase III and integrate the drones into a missile warhead, deployment could follow soon.

The U.S. is not the only player in this field, and may not even be the leader. Turkey has already fielded Kargu tactical kamikaze drones in small numbers on the Syrian border. Currently these are piloted remotely, but the makers claim the Kargu has autonomous swarming capability. China and Russia are not so far behind.

Unlike other WMD, drone swarms can be acquired at low cost and require relatively little technical skill. If there is a military advantage to be had, the U.S. may choose to delay discussions about whether their swarms should count as WMD. The situation may change if others deploy them – and if they start causing large numbers of casualties.

Short URL: http://militaryfeed.com/?p=66440

Posted by on Jun 3 2020. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed

Recently Commented