Drone technology is giving edge to attackers – The Pasadena Star-News


This month’s drone swarm attack on Russian military assets in Syria broke news as the first of its kind. But those playing along at home have known that leading countries have been hard at work developing drone swarm technology for years. Rather than a stunning new development, the Syria attack should be seen as the starting gun in a race to not just develop but deploy swarm technology in the field.

Although putting swarms on offense is likely to trigger the kind of broader conflict none of the great tech military powers want right now, getting them operational will establish a coveted strategic and psychological presence. Drone swarms aren’t just scarily reminiscent of plague-like clouds of malevolent insects. Even beyond their revolutionary impact on the way battlefields work (and don’t), they’re just cheap — far cheaper than the state-of-the art weapons and vehicles they can disable or destroy in a virtual heartbeat.

For decades, technology has been trending decisively in favor of offense and against defense. At sea, American superiority led regional adversaries and challengers to give up on competing head to head and instead seek an asymmetrical advantage with relatively inexpensive and expendable diesel-powered small submarines, capable of humming around undetected by sonar built to pick up larger peer-sized vessels.

On land, as we are now ruefully aware, large maneuvers on pitched battlefields have been rendered all but useless in an era when primary threats belong to militias, guerillas, terror groups, and individual or team attackers. Even miniscule operations can thwart defenses and score devastating blows, whether against relatively hard targets like airports or softer civilian targets.

In a discouraging paradox, the stronger such targets get, the easier, in some ways, they are to attack; in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the population has swelled tenfold since 2001, suicide attacks have grown easier and more plentiful. “There are factories producing suicide bombers,” Afghan prime minister Ashraf Ghani tells CBS News. “We are under siege.”

Online, meanwhile, the same pattern holds. The larger the organization or institution, characteristically, the larger what cybersecurity experts refer to as the “attack surface” — the area or total of opportunities bad actors can choose from when planning and executing digital strikes — and that even good actors end up fouling up when engaged in careless, negligent, or simply ignorant insecure behavior.

Now come drone swarms. Designed to be operated from afar and at least partly autonomous, the small craft can operate together as a single unit or entity, but can also hive off into subgroups, complete distinct tasks, then merge back together to re-swarm as a whole. They can also act as suicide bombers of their own.

For traditional military formations and equipment, it’s easy to see how this could simply spell doom. Next-generation fighter aircraft, so sophisticated a human pilot technically isn’t even required, can be taken down by a single drone flown or sucked into its intake vents. Perhaps you’ve heard of the trouble commercial airliners can get into when they cross paths with a flock of birds? Picture a squadron or aircraft — in the air or on the ground — encountering a swarm of explosive drones. Tanks may prove more difficult to penetrate, but infantry are all but defenseless against such attacks. Generations of naval warfare will have to be set aside and rethought.

Assuming, that is, comparable defensive technology is developed quickly enough. The reality is that drone swarms represent a large step, but just one step, toward a future in which conflict and violence is even more imbalanced in favor of offense than defense. It’s possible to imagine that drone swarms could be adapted to certain defensive tasks. Think, for instance, of what a “virtual wall” put together with the technology could achieve. But such advancements would be primarily directed toward repelling humans and light machines — not other drones, which could simply swarm over the defensive array and make way for yet another wave (or waves).

Even for the first military to deploy drone swarms, the nightmare scenario involves watching helplessly as the technology proliferates — not just among peer or near-peer militaries, but among the same shadowy organizations and ragtag bands that have already hamstrung much larger forces and drained national treasuries. Despite their great power, drone swarms cannot provide much of an edge against their own terrible power.

In the old days, offensive parity or near-parity resulted in pitched conflicts with decisive outcomes — for instance, the Battle of Britain between U.K. and Nazi fighter planes. Going forward, offensive weapons like drone swarms will not be used like gladiators but like teams of hackers or malware, capable of striking anywhere, anytime, almost without warning.

That makes them instruments of terror. From blitzkrieg to shock and awe, modern militaries have looked to exploit the stunning and morale-destroying impact of debilitating, panic-inducing first strikes. But lobbing V-1 rockets, or even launching precision cruise missiles, though they may horrify hapless targets, does not quite have the same effect as unleashing a cloud of flying craft. Drone swarms have the unique ability to strike at the heart of human myth and our sense of predation — roles that, previously, only swarms of armed human soldiers have been able to achieve in the past. Not even animals pressed into fighting roles, such as elephants in antiquity, were able to be used that way.

All of which leaves the leading military powers with some unpalatable choices. It seems insane not to proceed with developing drone swarm technology, which is surely just an initial component of AI-enhanced combat. But it is equally crazy to do so in an uninhibited or particularly aggressive way. Either enforceable new international conventions will have to be imposed, or a crash course in restoring the military balance between offense and defense will have to be adopted. And fast.

James Poulos is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group.

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