Magazine article National Defense

Marine Corps Developing Low Cost Robot Swarms to Counter Enemy Drones

Magazine article National Defense

Marine Corps Developing Low Cost Robot Swarms to Counter Enemy Drones

Article excerpt

* As the technology for unmanned systems proliferates, one of the biggest challenges facing the military today is countering small, inexpensive drones used by the enemy in unexpected ways, said a Marine Corps official.

"Growth in [unmanned system] capabilities, coupled with their affordability and accessibility, make it increasingly more difficult to identify how our potential adversaries will employ these systems," said Jeff Tomczak, director of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory's science and technology division. "Based upon our success in using unmanned systems, we know that the enemy is adapting, and to a larger degree, openly purchasing similar technology to use on tomorrow's battlefield."

For these reasons, the service is aggressively pursuing capabilities to counter unmanned systems that will be ready when they are needed the most, he said.

There are several government agencies and military branches examining this problem, said Capt. Adam Thomas, the aviation combat element branch head for the S&T division of the warfighting lab.

These threats exist today, he added. "These aren't future threats we're talking about. This is stuff that is out there that we are running up against."

State and non-state actors are using easily obtained and modified commercial, off-the-shelf drones for malicious purposes, he said.

He pointed to recent incidents where the Islamic State has used small unmanned aerial systems to conduct mission planning, real-time surveillance and to help direct artillery fire against its enemies. The group is "employing unmanned aircraft, and they're conducting reconnaissance on the forces they're fighting," Thomas said.

To develop a potential solution to this problem and prepare for how the enemy might employ unmanned systems in the future, the Marine Corps is focusing on key capabilities such as swarming and collaborative autonomy.

Swarming technology would allow a Marine to employ a horde of small, inexpensive drones to perform a variety of missions. Swarms can range in size but typically consist of 10 to 50 expendable unmanned aerial systems, according to a Marine Corps fact sheet. This technology has the potential to be used against both manned and unmanned platforms, Tomczak said.

Because the U.S. military is looking at this technology as a possible offensive capability, it has to be assumed that other countries are also exploring this concept and will employ it in the future, he said.

"You create a capability and then you've got to remember that someone else is going to create it probably within the next 10 years, and you want to be able to counter it," Tomczak said. "When these other countries employ swarming, how do you defend against it? Potentially having your own swarm, swarm on swarm, is one solution."

While the technology could be used in a defensive capacity against other unmanned systems, it also has potential as an offensive capability against advanced weapon systems such as missiles, according to Marine Corps officials.

Drone swarms have the capacity to flip the cost-to-kill ratio upside down, Thomas said.

"If you throw a bunch of relatively cheap, expendable platforms at an adversary, he's having to waste usually a significant number of assets to try to knock those swarm platforms down," he said. Additionally, "he's having to spend a significant amount of money to knock them out, using exquisite systems like missiles."

Tomczak agreed: "With the swarm technology, the potential here is that I can throw these little things out there for pennies compared to... a more advanced missile," he said. "I can defeat the [enemy] missile system, not with one big hit but with multiple smaller hits that are less expensive than the bigger missile so you can save that bigger missile for something more important."

Small drones could be used to destroy fighter jets by flying into the jet's intake and damaging the engine, Tomczak added. …

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