Ex-Intel Official Warns About Chinese Drone 'Swarms'

(Photo Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan M Harper)

(Photo Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan M Harper)

The former number two man at the Defense Intelligence Agency is concerned the Chinese may turn to "swarms" of potentially thousands of autonomous drones to content with American warships at sea.

"The U.S. is completely dependent on large and major weapons systems, whereas the Chinese are pursuing some major weapons systems development, but are really focusing on mass platforms -- the term of art is 'swarms,'" Doug Wise, who was DIA deputy director until last year, told The Cipher Brief. "Should a U.S. warship all of sudden get swarmed by hundreds if not a thousand small unarmed drones, it could have disruptive and distracting effects -- impacting electronics and target acquisition for U.S. weapons systems by blinding them. There an infinite number of roles swarms of nonlethal drones could play."

Wise said countering drone swarms is a particular challenge. "In the aerial context, you can blind them, shoot them out of the sky, and make them unable to communicate with their headquarters or adjoining platforms. But how do you do that with a platform of hundreds or thousands of drones that only have a visual cross-section of two to three feet? I would also presume the Chinese are pursuing variants of these small drone swarms to make them even harder to see and counteract," he said.

U.S. officials and experts have been discussing for years possible defenses against swarm attacks on the water -- but those discussions have usually come in the context of the Iranian naval strategy of potentially attacking U.S. warships using swarms of manned speedboats. (Iran has already used this tactic to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.) And as the USS Cole tragedy showed, a single explosive-laden boat can cripple a much larger ship. Aerial or maritime drone swarms would be something of a different ballgame.

The U.S. Defense Department has gotten into the drone swarm game on the offensive side as well, as demonstrated in this (fairly creepy) government video showing fighter jets launching over 100 drones in California that spring to life in mid-air, and then "demonstrate[] advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing," according to the military. (By coincidence, the test was done at a place in the Mojave Desert called China Lake.)

The Chinese have reportedly taken to the air with swarms as well, deploying 119 by slingshot for a test in June.

“Swarming is currently considered to be one of the most promising areas of defence technology development in the world,” Vasily Kashin, an expert on China’s military at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told the Financial Times in August. “The Chinese are prioritising it.”

Wise, the former DIA official, said, "[The Chinese] are not spending as much money and effort on the larger autonomous or remotely operated vehicle platforms. Instead, they are looking at a deeply historic Chinese military ethos and philosophy that says a well structured, yet conventionally inferior adversary can still defeat a superior adversary -- the United States."

Primary Source: The Cipher Brief Interview With Doug Wise

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