Tomorrow's Nightmare: Drone Swarms in Space

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In the silent stillness above the atmosphere, pieces space debris gracefully orbit the planet by the hundreds of thousands, creating a ring of metallic junk amid the otherwise vast emptiness. Suddenly, from behind pieces of discarded rocket parts or broken satellites, dozens of autonomous drones emerge simultaneously into view and do a coordinated about face. 

Using tiny boosters and autonomous navigation, they wind their way through the junk, faster and faster, towards a military satellite. The impact makes no noise, but is spectacular as the satellite is torn apart by the speeding drones. Other satellites are taken out simultaneously. Suddenly, the U.S. military has lost the ultimate high ground.

The nightmare scenario, recently imagined in part on an Army blog, is the result of combining two emergent predictions: that terrifying drone swarms won't only be Earth-bound and that a conflict in the heavens is coming, sooner than you'd think.

"There is a distinct advantage for drones operating in space: the ability to hide in plain sight among the scattered debris in orbit," says the blog post, written by an intern at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)'s Mad Scientist Initiative. "Drones can be sent into space on a private or government launch hidden within a larger, benign payload. Once in space, these drones could be released into orbit, where they would blend in with the hundreds of thousands of other small pieces of material. When activated, they would lock onto a target or targets, and swarms would converge autonomously and communicate to avoid obstacles."

Drone swarms are already a thing, though they haven't been used prevalently in the battlefield as far as publicly known. Last year the former number two man at the Defense Intelligence Agency said he was concerned the Chinese military may deploy swarms of thousands of autonomous drones to take on American warships.

"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."

It would not be a big leap to apply the same tactic in space, considering how valuable satellites are to the American military. Earlier this year I spoke with a former longtime Air Force official, who was involved in President Ronald Reagan's infamous "Star Wars" program, about why America's adversaries would target satellites.

"Satellites do a lot of things for the military. If someone were to interfere with them, it’d be serious," retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff said then, noting that GPS, some long-distance communications and especially early-warning systems for missile strikes are satellite-dependent. "Space is just another area of operations, just like an enemy will try to attack our supply lines... they’re going to attack our eyes and ears."

 Part of a Delta 2 rocket crashed back to earth in 2001. (Photo credit: NASA.gov)

Part of a Delta 2 rocket crashed back to earth in 2001. (Photo credit: NASA.gov)

It's an eventuality that the military should start preparing for, the Army blog post says, by hardening satellites and developing alternatives to space-based systems like GPS.

"For now, the only war in space is the one conducted electronically, but kinetic operations in outer space are a realistic probability in the deep future," it says.

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