Defence technology – How drone swarms will defend Britain | Britain
THE VAST hangar of HMS Prince of Wales, Britain’s newest aircraft-carrier, houses no warplanes yet. But there are plenty of drones. “If we wanted to see over a hill, we had to send someone up,” explains a marine. Now, he says, pointing to a 7kg Puma drone that can be thrown into the air, “we can soak an area before we put lads on the ground”. The Puma sits in the sky at 10,000 feet—too high to be seen or heard—beaming back footage detailed enough to see individual weapons. His colleague shows off the Hero, an Israeli-made suicide drone, light enough that two can be strapped on to a commando’s back. Instead of watching things, it smashes into them.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) aims to go one better than this. In April it re-established 216 Squadron as an experimental unit responsible for testing not just individual drones but insect-like swarms of them. A swarm is not merely a mass of drones in one place: they work together to a common end. On October 7th Leonardo, an Italian arms company, said that, in partnership with the RAF, it had conducted a successful demonstration of just such a swarm.
The company already makes Coke-can-sized electronic decoys, which mimic aircraft to fool enemy radar. These were in use on the now-retired Tornado jet two years ago. But whereas the Tornado simply spat out the decoys and let them glide away, in the new versions they are attached to multiple drones. The idea is that cheap, expendable swarms could overwhelm the radars of air-defence networks, clearing a path for more expensive warplanes.
Such swarms, which many countries are developing, are probably “some way from an operational capability”, says Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. But the melding of drones and artificial intelligence (AI) to do dull, dirty and dangerous work fits well with plans to reshape the armed forces as part of a forthcoming “integrated review” of defence and foreign policy. A hint of where that review is heading was offered on September 30th, when the Ministry of Defence published an Integrated Operating Concept—essentially, a view of how war is changing.
Three themes stand out. One is the blurring of the boundary between peace and war, epitomised by Russian and Chinese tactics. To counter that, Britain’s armed forces will be used more often in peacetime, for both “covert and overt activity”—from surreptitious hacking to rapid troop deployments. A second is the need to use troops more widely around the world, particularly in Asia. That could have major diplomatic ramifications. Britain will “look beyond NATO to other alliances”, for instance.
Technology is the third motif of the paper. New sensors, from satellites to smart watches, and the data they produce, “will make it extremely hard to hide today’s military signature anywhere on the globe”. Although the document tactfully shies away from mentioning aircraft carriers, it includes a line whose import is hard to miss: “expensive, crewed platforms that we cannot replace and can ill afford to lose will be increasingly vulnerable to swarms of self-co-ordinating smart munitions”. Drones are part of both the problem and the answer. “The economics of warfare are changing the balance between…crewed and uncrewed systems.”
Accordingly, the RAF is not the only service shedding humans. In a speech aboard the Prince of Wales on October 8th Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain’s first sea lord, boasted that his was “a navy confident enough to swap ships for drones”. He pointed to experiments in Scotland with drone ships as “the first step in our plan to move to a fully autonomous minehunting capability”.
“Some industrial-age capabilities will increasingly have to meet their sunset to create the space for capabilities needed for sunrise,” acknowledged General Sir Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of defence staff, when he launched the new operating concept. Traditionalists worry that this portends fewer ships, planes and tanks in an already-shrunken force. “The trick,” says General Carter, “is how you find a path through the night.”■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Global swarming”