The future of drone warfare: From AI-assisted swarms to unmanned jet aircraft

Drones using artificial intelligence could soon save the lives of pilots but critics warn of nightmarish autonomous killing machines

Iranian-made drones of the Revolutionary Guard aerospace division are seen on a truck during an annual military parade marking anniversary of the beginning of war against Iran by former Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein. AP Photo
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Drones and the future of war: Read the next in the series here - The drone revolution

Ukraine will be a proving ground for new lessons as armies race to build deadlier and more cost-effective drones, but given the price and research time it is unlikely to witness a growth in advanced AI in unmanned aerial aircraft.

In this follow-up article on how drones have transformed the Ukraine conflict, we take a look to the near future, asking experts how drones could make the future of warfare unrecognisable from today’s struggles.

Drone swarms equipped with AI and machine learning can speak to each other while en route to attack, for example, a large airfield. They could then decide to strike from several directions, each going after their own designated target such as missile defences, control tower and aircraft hangars.

The UAE is pushing ahead in this field with the Edge company developing the Hunter 2-S drones that feature a swarm of loitering munitions, with the operator’s only involvement being selecting the targets and ordering the UAVs to take-off.

“The drones decide among themselves, the route to fly, how to approach the target and how many should attack each target,” said military analyst Sam Cranny-Evans.

The concept of “loyal wingman” is also being developed by America and Britain, with the idea that a manned fighter will fly with several drones which are either at the pilot’s control or can move autonomously. The US wants to build 1,000 such aircraft. Japan, Australia and China also have wingman-style programmes.

Already, similarly large, long-range drones are being tested on aircraft carriers by the US and UK, with roles ranging from refuelling other aircraft to reconnaissance.

With enough computer power on board, the loyal wingman can theoretically be given algorithms that will enable to “learn as they do”. Those learnings – be it positioning of enemy defences or particularly successful manoeuvres, can be shared across the fleet. It can also sacrifice itself to save the manned fighter.

The innovations don’t end there. Another prospect being developed by US defence firm Kratos is the Gremlin drone.

The idea is that Gremlins can be launched from an aircraft that has the role of “mothership”, complete their mission and return to the larger aircraft in mid-flight, to be refuelled, rearmed and sent on a new mission, all while airborne.

Drone swarms

Counter-drone technology will prove vital as scientists work out how to defeat drone swarms, especially with AI and machine learning.

Smarter drones will present particular difficulties if they attack in the tens or even hundreds.

The Middle East first witnessed swarm attacks when ISIS used up to 70 in an assault in one day that temporarily halted an Iraqi army charge during the Battle of Mosul in 2017.

More recently Ukraine sent up to 10 drones to a Russian airfield where they destroyed two Ilyushin transport aircraft and damaged another two.

“The whole swarming technology is a huge and interesting area,” said Dr Ulrike Franke, technology lead at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It goes back to quantity where we see how useful it can be to have big swarms."

Jeremy Binnie, of Janes, the defence intelligence company, agreed. “If the drones can talk to each other, they can find targets as a collective and assign targets among themselves as a collective. That maximises their efficiency so they all don't go after the same one.”

The US has cottoned on to this idea with its replicator project, which aims to field tens of thousands of quadcopters even on the world’s most remote battlefields, using secure internet provided by low earth orbit satellites, such as the Starlink network.

The US has already trained with at least one drone swarm of 40, while the defence advanced research projects agency (Darpa) says swarms of 1,000 could be possible.

Until then, US forces have been on the receiving end of attacks.

In March, a US contractor was killed and five others injured in northern Syria when a small number of Iran-made kamikaze drones were launched by a Tehran-backed militia at their base. According to one report, a counter-drone radar at the site was under maintenance during the attack.

But the US is already fielding an array of counter-measures to stop the threat.

The prevalence of drones in Ukraine “doesn’t make it follow that they're going to be everywhere in the next war”, said Mr Cranny-Evans, who has written a paper on the subject for the Rusi think tank. “There’s a long way to go before they're as effective as some conventional solutions that exist.”

An accurate artillery barrage on a position would much more likely break an infantry unit over a couple of suicide drone strikes.

“What we will see in the next war is a collaboration with drones as an addition to that combined arms matrix,” Mr Cranny-Evans said. “There could be autonomous reconnaissance drones for the artillery followed up by strike drones combined with an armoured assault on to an objective. But they're not going to completely revolutionise the way things are done, just give additional avenues for killing.”

Indeed, even before Russia’s invasion, the Ukraine conflict – between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, was giving us a glimpse of this.

Within a year of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine, US General David Perkins warned Russia was deploying “massive use of drones to spot for artillery”. By the 2022 invasion, Ukraine had turned the tables on Russia in the race for dominance of the skies, but where the drone war goes next is uncertain.

"You're seeing the clear water between the very large, what I call exquisite technology, the big, long-range drones with the ability to stay on station for hours and hours, armed with weapons, and then the use of massive numbers of drones that you can afford to lose, even in quite large numbers. And I think both of them have their place," says Sophy Antrobus, a research fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute.

She added that once western militaries have built up their drone arsenals with loyal wingman systems and new concepts such as Gremlin drones, major conflicts could revert to the old US doctrine of dominance using conventional air power, backed up by AI-assisted drones.

"Then it comes back to levels of air superiority, when deciding which are becoming most effective."

Dr Franke added that Ukraine had not seen large systems of “high-altitude, long-endurance” drones that will “play a completely crucial role” in maritime warfare and other future conflicts.

Future warfare will also feature less wealthy states using drones, suggested Mr Binnie. “We're already seeing really quite poor African countries buying them and if a new product comes along that does much the same as a western drone and it's cheap, then we're going to see more people buying it so suddenly everyone's got a precision air-strike capability.”

He added that future warfare could see “men completely taken out of the loop” with autonomous drones combating each other.

AI could also assist drones to specifically target certain vehicles. For example, supplied with enough video footage of a US Abrams tank would allow a drone to specifically target it.

Furthermore, if pictures from all angles of a human were downloaded into the software, then drones could make assassination attempts on specific presidents or prime ministers.

“The next war that western forces go to, there will almost certainly be a loss of western soldiers’ lives to autonomous drones,” said Mr Cranny-Evans. “And that threat extends to the potential for assassinations.

“These drones can be almost silent. They're very small, fit into a backpack and you don't need a huge amount of explosive for one person. The algorithm also needs only a handful of training images to strike.

“AI will also allow the drone to teach itself from the data that you put in, so you don't have to teach it. It will come up with its own way of figuring out that that is the head of state and how best to attack.”

Read more on The National's series Drones and the future of war

Updated: October 06, 2023, 6:37 AM