Inspiration by nature is one of the most substantial elements throughout the history of mankind for human progress. Although the system imitated was intended to serve the best interests of man, it has occasionally been the subject of conflicts. Today, the machines are to proceed in the absence of humans. “Swarming” concept is the highest stage that this autonomous structure has reached.
The system can be associated with such terms as giving birth, proliferation and congregation, the examples of which are abound in nature. Before dealing with unmanned autonomous systems based on swarming, it is essential to shed light on these terms.
“Swarming” is a type of behaviour observed in many species in the micro world. The most commonplace examples are; mono-cellular organisms, bees, ants and some bird species. Mono-cellular organisms in particular, survive in this manner co-ordinately and rapidly in liquid environment (mostly water). In order to sustain itself, the organism evaluates the current circumstances and then, based on the results, initiates the process through utilisation of a signalling system. Since each organism is interacting with one another through bio-chemical means, they know what to do by the help of constant feedback.
Indeed, what are the advantages of this system in the micro world, having perfected itself through billions of years of evolution, for the mankind as well as unmanned systems? Sean Edwards analyses the swarming theory in four stages: “Locate, Converge, Attack, and Disperse” As for John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, swarming is defined as “Engaging an adversary from all directions simultaneously, either with fire or in force.” In other words, swarming in the military sense of the term means incapacitating the enemy’s ability to decide, respond, and concentrate their efforts by a network-based attack from multiple directions.
Swarming units can operate forward to destroy or disrupt adversaries’ electronic warfare capabilities or air and coastal defence systems, thus capitalizing on traditional units’ firepower, mobility, and sustainment capabilities. 1 Eventually, this doctrine known as “Multi-Domain Task Force” constitutes the basis of network-centric warfare, while swarming is the structure on which this system will sustain itself in the future.
The application of swarming as an approach to autonomous systems in the military area is a particular research topic. Its content entails robots following the leader, follower systems protecting the command vehicle and autonomous intelligence algorithms that can be applied to other air-land-naval unmanned vehicles.
In Greek the word “autonomous” refers to “aut + nomos law”, meaning the one with own laws/rules. It refers to the rights and the powers of self-administration or the kind of management sustained or handled without external control. In another context, it signifies one’s independence and self-sufficiency, together with the ability to take self-interested decisions. New developments herald that the artificial intelligence will have a serious impact on large-scale autonomous military systems.
Some of them are enumerated as follows:
• Increase in the geopolitical impact of small yet rich countries,
• Use of autonomous systems together with asymmetric warfare systems thus incapacitating sophisticated systems featuring preventive attack capability,
• Further competition between traditional (conventional) powers with obsolete technologies owing to the integration of the autonomous approach to these systems,
• Decrease in political pressure over states thanks to technological advancements enhancing precision and risk tolerance of autonomous platforms and thus preventing civilian casualties. 2
The production cost of UAVs is 25-40% lower than that of manned vehicles while their operating cost is nearly 80% lower. This renders preference of unmanned systems advantageous for some operations. The fact that the newly developed armed UAVs are able to perform dogfight manoeuvres autonomously 3 will make it possible suppression of enemy air defence systems in collective operations. 4
Although many UAVs are being developed in many corners of the world featuring many tasks and capabilities, those with the ability to perform swarming operations have begun proliferating only very recently. Indeed, as conveyed in the article titled “Warfare Concept of the Future” appearing in the 59th issue of C4Defence, the first drone swarming was observed in Syria against the Russian military air base of Kheimim. This is indicative of how battlefields will take shape in the future. 5,6
Although the theoretical basis of swarming is not new, countries developing technologies through future-based work have made great strides. In the United States, the DARPAGremlin Program is built on the swarming system. According to officials, it is foreseen that the UAVs in the project can be used repetitively in 20 different missions. Another related work on this subject is the Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) undertaken by the US Naval Forces Research Centre. 7
Furthermore, in another project conducted jointly by DARPAand Raytheon, the system called the OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) incorporates an open-based architecture test bed in which more than 250 autonomous ground, air and water drones are expected to assist infantry troops. While some news channels shared the number as 119, this is incomparably small vis-à-vis the 1,180 UAVs observed in the closing ceremony of the Forum in Guangzhou, China. The situation is similar on the part of Russia. 8,9 However, they give an exact date, arguing that they will operationalise within five years, autonomous drones to decide for themselves and perform surveillance missions in military operations. 10 As for the EuroSWARM, financed by the European Union, the attention is on autonomous swarm robots to communicate with each other. The project aims at maximising the information to be gathered, feeding ground units with the most appropriate information and eventually, preventing casualties. 11
Besides these developments related to air systems, sea areas, occupying an important space in terms of A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial), cannot be thought apart from swarming. Today, all countries have arrived at the realisation that tens or hundreds of full or semi-autonomous boats equipped with missiles and other weapons are more advantageous when compared to a billion-dollar warship. In this vein, technologies developed particularly by China, Russia and Iran to counter the naval supremacy of the United States, are noteworthy. Competition in this area is very fierce; as an example, the Chinese company Yunzhou Tech Corporation has declared that its armed autonomous boats ensure success in the face of their US counterparts. 12 Robotic swarming systems seem to suck the blood of large war machines ike a swarm of mosquitoes. Russia’s Poseidon multipurpose underwater raise the threat bar even more with their nuclear warheads. 13 As a precautionary move, the United States is now making efforts to develop a swarm aircraft carrier as a countermeasure. This is intended to perform longer-range surveillance of enemy activity and launch coordinated surface and undersea drone swarm attacks without putting a host ship in range of enemy fire. 14 MBDA’s e-VTOL (electrical vertical take-off and landing) drone called Spectre stands out as a next-generation UAV. The system has a wide variety of target list including light armoured, heavy armoured and unmanned systems. If fitted with the swarming technology, this system would be even more efficient. 15
Owing to advancements in technology, humans gradually disappear from the battlefield. On the other hand, this increases dependency on the machines even more. However, this dependency also brings with it other responsibilities and restrictions at the same time. The first and foremost of all is ethics and the control of drones. Apart rom “Radio Controlled” (RC) and “Self-flying” UAVs, which are fully or half-controlled by humans, there are also full autonomous options on the table.
Nevertheless, as demonstrated in this article, it is anticipated that swarming activities will eventually concentrate on fully autonomous systems in near future. Against this backdrop, it would be essential is all forces re-evaluated their security strategies in the framework of autonomous systems. One solution would be to design all unmanned systems according to autonomous structure and/or as easily adaptable to such structure. It would also be advantageous in terms of resource management to modernise the available systems as much as possible according to this novel idea.
In the kind of multi-layered Network-Centric Warfare that we are experiencing today, the requirement for systems communicating with each other is on the rise with each passing day. It is of utmost importance that all manned and unmanned elements move co-ordinately in the asymmetric and ambiguous battlefield of today.
This article is published in the 66th issue of C4Defence magazine.
1 Soldier Swarm: New Ground Combat Tactics for the Era of Multi-Domain Battle