As evening fell on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in western Syria, the first drones appeared. Then more, until 13 were flashing on radars, speeding towards the airbase and a nearby naval facility.
The explosives-armed aircraft were no trouble for Russian air defences, which shot down seven and jammed the remaining six, according to the country’s defence ministry. But the failed attack in January last year was disturbing to close observers of drone warfare.
“It was the first instance of a mass-drone attack and the highest number of drones that I believe we’ve seen non-state actors use simultaneously in a combat operation,” says Paul Scharre, a defence analyst and author who studies the weaponisation of artificial intelligence.
The attempted attacks continued and in September the Russian army said it had downed nearly 60 drones around the Khmeimim base so far this year.
For now, military drone use is dominated by lightweight surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger attack UAVs. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future: according to defence experts at the information group Jane’s, orders for both types of device are expected to increase dramatically in the decade ahead.
The technology of swarming – drones deployed in squadrons, able to think independently and operate as a pack – is in its infancy, but armed forces around the world, including in the UK, are investing millions of pounds in its development.
The drones used to attack Khmeimim and the Saudi facilities were likely to have been programmed with the GPS coordinates of their targets and then launched in their direction. Israel is already using hordes of drones to overwhelm Syrian air defences, saturating areas with more targets than anti-aircraft systems can handle.
According to analysts, drone swarms of the future could have the capacity to assess targets, divide up tasks and execute them with limited human interaction.
“The real leap forward is swarming where … a human says ‘Go accomplish this task’ and the robots in the swarm communicate amongst each other about how to divvy it up,” Scharre says.
Analysts predict we might see rudimentary versions of the technology in use within a decade. That might include swarms of drones operating on multiple different frequencies, so they are more resistant to jamming, or swarms that can block or shoot down multiple threats more quickly than the human brain can process.
“Two fielders running to catch a ball can [usually] coordinate amongst themselves,” Scharre says. “But imagine a world where you have 50 fielders and 50 balls. Humans couldn’t handle the complexity of that degree of coordination. Robots could handle that with precision.”
Advances in swarming technology are mostly classified, though governments have given glimpses of their progress.
In 2016, the US released video of more than 100 micro-drones over a lake in California manoeuvring as “a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature”, an air force scientist said.
In tests last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency claimed a small squadron of its drones had successfully shared information, allocated jobs and made coordinated tactical decisions against both pre-programmed and “pop-up” threats.
“If you look back at the USS Cole bombing – that boat was just sitting as an open target at that port in Yemen,” says Dan Gettinger, a co-director at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, referring to the October 2000 attack by two boat-borne al-Qaida suicide bombers that killed 17 American sailors.
“If you had a protective shield of unmanned service vehicles, they could intercept that before it happens,” he says.
The idea of autonomous, intelligent drones empowered to kill understandably sparks concern. António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said in a speech last year: “The prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant.”
In 2017, advocates of a ban against autonomous weapons released a short film, Slaughterbots, depicting a dystopian future where terrorists could unleash swarms of tiny drones capable of identifying and killing specific people.
Some analysts are sceptical of these nightmare scenarios. Drones may one day develop the capacity to carry out targeted killings in swarms. But militaries are not certain to adopt such technology, says Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Their reluctance would be more about expense than ethics. “If you think about the logistics of having a lot of sophisticated drones that can pick out individuals, process the data, communicate with each other, navigate a city … there’s a lot of moving parts to that and it’s very expensive,” Watling says.
More affordable, and therefore more likely to be procured, he says, will be drone swarms that perform relatively simple tasks such as cluttering radar systems to distract and confuse enemy sensors.
Part of what makes drones so attractive is their low cost, Scharre adds. Western military inventories have drastically shrunk in past years, as ships and aircraft have become more sophisticated and too expensive to purchase in large quantities (which, in turn, raises the cost of each vessel or plane).
Drones are a cheap way to boost the sheer size of a force. “Western militaries are trying to find ways to add numbers to the equation, to complement these expensive, bespoke aircraft and ships with cheaper systems that can augment them,” Scharre says.
Ultimately, he adds, it may be fruitless to try to predict the future of swarming technology from the vantage point of 2019. “Imagine someone looking at an airplane in 1912,” he says. “They might be thinking, ‘This will be useful.’ But nobody really knows yet what it can do.”
Dr. Hans C. Mumm