Think Drone Swarms Are Scary? The Newest Weapon May Be “Drone Meshes”

One potentially fearsome new weapon is the drone swarm, a flock of hundreds of small unmanned aerial vehicles working together like a hive mind to overwhelm a target.

But U.S. thinktank RAND has another idea: a “targeting mesh” of small, unarmed drones that would saturate a target area with sensors that would identify high-value targets for stand-off anti-ship missiles.

The low-cost attritable aircraft technology (L-CAAT) concept envisions small 600-pound drones equipped with short-range electro-optical cameras, synthetic aperture radars and electronic intelligence collectors. These small L-CAAT drones, naturally dubbed “kittens,” would tote a tiny 60-pound payload.

“They would only carry a sensor and a radio,” RAND researcher David Ochmanek told Uncommon Defense.

Each drone in the targeting mesh would scan a narrow slice of territory. The RAND study cites an example where 500 UAVs fly at 30,000 feet over a coverage area in the Taiwan Strait that measures 100 by 100 kilometers (62 by 62 miles).

Their drones would be equipped with cheap, off-the-shelf cameras and synthetic aperture radars, which means the probability of an individual kitten’s sensors identifying a target is fairly low. But as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. In the Taiwan scenario, RAND calculates that any given target in the coverage zone – such as a Chinese warship – would be under observation by 15 different drones, thus vastly increasing the probability of success.

In turn, the kittens would provide targeting data to 3-ton “missile truck” drones, armed with a 1,200-pound payload of stand-off anti-ship missiles that would enable them to stay out of range of enemy defenses. These larger drones would be similar to the Kratos XQ-58A, an experimental UAV that resembles a scaled-down F-35 stealth fighter. Or, the kittens could cue in missiles launched by manned aircraft, ships or land-based coastal defense batteries used by nations like Taiwan.

The kittens would be controlled by human operators, though they would have sufficient on-board AI to function if communications were jammed or interrupted. But while the kittens work loosely together, they are not a drone swarm, “This is not a ‘swarm’ in the sense of a group of objects coordinating their tactical movement,” explains the RAND study. “The UAVs are spreading out to cover the required area. They are continuously communicating with one another to ensure that they are not all concentrated in one area, but they are not otherwise attempting to coordinate their behavior.”

Significantly, the goal here isn’t target detection but rather identification. RAND reckons that a massive operation such as a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic States, would be detected by spy satellites or other surveillance platforms. But with a limited stockpile of expensive smart munitions to draw upon, the trick is figuring out which targets are worth a missile, and which should be ignored. Is that blip on the radar screen a high-value aircraft carrier or troop transport, or a small minesweeper that should be ignored?

“It’s separating the wheat from the chaff,” says Ochmanek.

Unfortunately, a flock of non-stealth drones flying at 30,000 feet will probably be easy prey for anti-aircraft missiles. “You could imagine losing several hundred air vehicles in a rather short period of time,” Ochmanek says. “If you wanted to sustain a mesh of 500 UAVs, you might have to launch 700, 800, 900 over a period of several hours.”

But flying at high altitude would keep the drones safe from anti-aircraft guns, which means the enemy would have to target them with surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Yet putting hundreds of UAVs over the target area that force the enemy to either ignore them, or expend their SAM stockpile and leave themselves vulnerable to attack by other aircraft. It’s the same problem faced by missile defense systems such as Iron Dome, where Israel found itself launching $100,000 interceptor rockets at homemade Hamas rockets that were little more than metal tubes filled with explosives.

“If the kittens can be produced at a price point of something like $300,000 to $500,000, and if we can keep them flying at high altitudes, then we don’t see a cheap way to kill them,” Ochmanek says.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Army

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