Non-state actors in West Asia have already demonstrated the efficacy of swarming attacks by off-the-shelf drones on conventional military targets. Denied high-technology weapons and equipment, these non-state actors may have had no choice but to improvise in this manner.  But what  happens if a major State actor takes a leaf out of their book, and develops relatively low-cost ruggedized drones that coordinate their activities using artificial intelligence (AI) in a bid to overwhelm enemy defences? Given that China seems to be adopting this approach, it would be worthwhile to examine the same a bit more closely.


As Elsa Kania writes in ‘Swarms at War: Chinese Advances in Swarm Intelligence’, Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believes that future warfare will be “unmanned, invisible, and silent” with ever higher degrees of “intelligentization”  in which unmanned systems will play a pivot role dramatically impacting the traditional operational models (PLA Daily, January 5, 2016).


Chinese advances in swarming technology

The potential of UAV swarms in offensive roles against a technologically superior opponent is well appreciated by the PLA and they envisage using drone swarms even against U.S. fighter jets or aircraft carriers (Science and Technology Daily, March 29; China News Network, November 2, 2016; China Military Online, December 31, 2016). Recent demonstrations and incidents do illustrate the advances made by China in this direction.


At the Global Fortune Forum in Guangzhou  in December 2017, China set a world record of sorts, when 1,108 drones operating as a swarm performed a variety of tasks.  The number of drones is significant as it was the first time that over a 1000 drones had operated in a swarm. Intel, the Tech Giant, set the bar a bit higher during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and bettered the world record by launching a 1,200 drone swarm. This was  however soon outdone by  China’s Ehang,when it launched 1,374 drones during a show that was held as part of Labour Day celebrations at Xian.


In the case of military drone swarms, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC)  has already displayed the cooperative movement of a 119 drone swarm in August 2017. This  demonstration actually broke a previous US-held record for 103 drones made earlier in 2017.  One thing is amply clear, whenever the US ( or any one else) demonstrates its capabilities in this sphere, the Chinese seem to be able to better in as far as the numerical strength of the swarm is concerned. This in itself should be a matter of concern for China’s adversaries, even if the actual level of sophistication attained by Chinese swarming technology cannot be ascertained with certainty at this point in time.


Now as far as ‘fixed wing’ mini-drones are concerned, the number of drones that can be put in the air in a short period of time so that they can form a swarm, is a function of the type of launcher used.  The Chinese use something called  ‘ARSENL’ which is described as a ‘chain driven launcher’ that takes about 40 seconds to launch a drone. The number of drones that can be launched to form a swarm using this method is in the vicinity of a hundred at the moment. In the case of the Intel and Ehang demonstrations,  rotary wing drones were used, which of course do not require launchers. China  also successfully carried out tests in 2017 for launching drones using electromagnetic pulse, wherein the drones reached speeds of 100 km/hr within a few moments of launch and autonomously adjusted their trajectory and their altitudes as they streamed towards the target


Though not much is publicly available about China’s military swarming tech to make a complete appraisal, video analysis of public demonstrations does seem to reveal a certain refinement in the AI being used.  For instance,  in these demonstrations it has been observed that in case a unit falls out of sync with the group or misses its objective, it is able to detach itself and execute an individual landing. According to some analysts who believe China’s swarm technology has enormous military potential, ‘while the United States is still in the early stages of drone swarming, China’s demonstrations indicate that in some respects, it has surpassed the U.S. in this area’. Indeed, Chinese demonstrations have also included instances of drone swarms being used for reconnaissance, strike, jamming, and other missions. This 2016 news clip purportedly shows a swarm formation ‘hunting’ for an enemy missile launcher. As such, China claims that its drone swarms can carry out ad-hoc networking, autonomous mission squadron clustering, distributed-mode surveillance, and target encirclement.

Stratospheric swarms?

Further proof of its emerging drone capabilities was given by China when it carried out tests of a solar-powered intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) drone in ‘near space’.  According to reports, China has also carried out missile release tests from such solar powered drones in near space. The real potential of such near space drones however lies in using them as a ‘master drone’ coupled with a drone swarm for ISR. If used with small drones, it would not only be a cost effective option but lead to better overall survivability for the master-swarm coupled system.


Expanding into new realms, China has also conducted stratospheric tests with unpowered fixed-wing mini-drones , launched by an electromagnetic catapult (linear induction motor) affixed on top of a special balloon. Now, the advances made by China in swarm intelligence are a result of years of research and development (R&D) in areas related to AI, including deep learning techniques. In this, CETC is the most advanced corporation, working in collaboration with various universities and institutes. The display by sixty-seven drones utilizing ‘autonomous swarm control and dynamic center-less networks’ in November 2016 was one of the early demonstrations of CETC’s advancements. The capabilities of CETC have only grown in the recent times and in less than a year, in June 2017, CETC showed off its progress by testing a swarm of  119 fixed-wing UAVs, as mentioned earlier.


A result of civil-military integration

Perhaps the key reason for these advances is a pooling of resources by China’s military and civilian sectors to include academic institutes and private sector entities in the swarm robotic effort, alongside military research institutes. This is being done as part of China’s  strategy to achieve true civil-military integration (CMI) such that the goals set out for achieving advances in critical technologies related to swarming are met by 2030.  It is pertinent to note that the guidelines for pre-research funding under the 13th Five-Year Plan specifically mention research on ‘bee swarm’ UAVs on self-organizing network architectures, associated monitoring and control technologies, swarm networking and positioning technology, and network anti-jamming technologies.T Indeed, there is  no doubt that China has put unmanned systems using swarming tactics and manned-unmanned teaming at the center stage of its ambitious program to leverage adaptive, intelligent unmanned systems across multiple domains of warfare as it seeks to replace conventional weapons with highly automated and intelligent weaponry composed of unmanned systems forming a ‘multi-dimensional, multi-domain unmanned combat weapons battlefield system of systems’.


As an aside, CMI in the drone arena is not limited to R&D but also includes the use of civilian resources for operational purposes. One such instance was the use of UAVs from two civilian companies in a joint logistic support exercise of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Such cooperation and use of civil resources is something not done by most  countries and needs to be factored in while assessing China’s capabilities.


Now while these advances seem impressive, a word of caution would not be out of place. Almost a decade ago, Allen Griffis , in his work,  ‘Predicting the Future  Capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Forces of China’, had cautioned that the world, especially the US typically fails to predict the evolutionary path of the PLA, and ends up attributing unlimited capacity to PLA assets while applying the wrong strategic models. This caution is still relevant today and should be kept in mind while assessing PLA capabilities and the threat those might pose in a future conflict. And as Austin Strange, a researcher at the U.S. Naval Institute puts it “It is difficult to gauge the precise nature of Chinese drone development because of Beijing’s lack of transparency”.


With that note of caution thus recorded, for India, it is important that Chinese advances in swarm technology are not taken lightly. At the end of the day, it is undeniable that China is the world’s largest drone producing country and is simultaneously investing heavily in AI and swarm logic. It has likely mastered the ‘science’ behind drone swarm technology and seems intent to deploy the latter for military purposes. It therefore behooves Indian military R&D to explore the means necessary to counter China’s coming drone swarm.


Colonel Mandeep Singh(Retd) joined the Indian Army in December 1982 and was commissioned into Air Defence Artillery.  He commanded an Air Defence Group during Operation Parakaram and also commanded his Regiment along the Line of Actual Control with China.  


© Delhi Defence Review. Reproducing this content in full without permission is prohibited.