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Drone swarms vs conventional arms: China’s military debate

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Drone swarms vs conventional arms: China’s military debate

Beijing split over pursuit of low-cost hybrid systems to add to its arsenal

China is experimenting with the use of low-cost drones linked together to form swarms © Ian Bott

With their tiny propellers buzzing, the fleet of Chinese aircraft, little larger than model planes, are flung into the air one at a time by huge rubber bands. Soon the sky is full of toylike drones flying in formations over unidentified mountains in China.

This unlikely spectacle could represent a revolution in military affairs. The June 11 demonstration of “swarm” technology by China Electronics Technology Group, a state-owned high-tech company, included 119 drones. That made it the world’s largest-ever swarm, according to CETC, breaking a US-held record.

Each tiny aircraft — bought online for a few hundred dollars — is loaded with software and sensors capable of communicating with the other drones in the swarm. Developers are working towards a future where thousands could operate in sync, identifying and attacking targets. In theory, such swarms could feature drones fitted with missiles or warheads capable of sophisticated attacks designed to overwhelm defences with their sheer numbers.

“This goes all the way back to the tactics of Attila the Hun,” says Randall Steeb, senior engineer at the Rand Corporation in the US. “A light attack force that can defeat more powerful and sophisticated opponents. They come out of nowhere, attack from all sides and then disappear, over and over.”

China is a world leader in drone production and has been swift to show civilian and military applications. Here a surveillance drone is used by paramilitary police after an earthquake © Reuters

China’s two-decade effort to modernise its military has seen it develop stealth fighters, guided missile destroyers and ballistic “carrier killer” missiles, while also reducing troop numbers. It will spend at least $152bn this year on its military, but only in a few areas has it come close to surpassing US technology. Beijing is now betting that swarms of drones, low-tech hardware knitted together with high-tech artificial intelligence, will become a weapon of the future.

The gamble is that they can be effective both as a lethal and non-lethal weapon. Thousands of cheap, 3D-printed drones, for example, could swarm aircraft carriers or fighter jets, which currently have no countermeasures for such attacks. They can also be effective, say experts, without being lethal by crossing the line into a shooting war — a valuable form of deterrence, especially for weaker countries.

For example, swarms of autonomous boats could appear when a US ship sails close to a disputed island in the South China Sea and block its path. Referred to by the US military as “grey-zone threats”, they could leave a superior military with a dilemma about how to respond without appearing to be the aggressor.

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

As is Washington. “Clearly the US and China are in some sort of weird swarm race,” says Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who writes on military robotics. “A swarm with 10 more individual drones isn’t necessarily better. What matters are the things you can’t see. It’s the algorithms that govern the swarm behaviour.”

China insists it is now on an even footing with the US on drones, with CETC saying it has “made some major breakthroughs”. But experts warn that mature swarm technology is still a long way off and will require developing the necessary technology to boost communication between the drones, methods to keep them in the air longer and a modern military capable of deploying the swarms effectively.

It is hard to assess the claim that China’s technology is superior to that of the US, says Mr Scharre. The US military operates about 7,000 drones. Analysts say there could be at least 1,300 currently in operation between the Chinese army and air force, although none have been used in offensive missions. 

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Hurlburt Field, Florida.The MQ-9 Reaper is a multi-mission, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft © USAF

However, Chinese-made drones have seen combat in war zones around the world, in the hands of importers such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. These drones are not autonomous, however, and require aircrews of at least three to operate them.

Swarms take the might of drones one step further. “The essence of a swarm is co-operation,” adds Mr Scharre. “Having a hundred or a thousand small cheap drones that can’t communicate and co-ordinate behaviour isn’t worth much. What’s valuable is if they can communicate and work cooperatively. That’s a difference between a wolf pack and just little wolves.”

The past 25 years have witnessed a period of US military dominance built on advanced technology in areas such as stealth and precision weaponry.

The US, which outspends China, its closest rival in military spending, by nearly four times, retains primacy through small amounts of highly sophisticated weapons. But as laggards catch up with cruise missiles and stealth fighters of their own, the US has been focused on even newer technologies. That has driven a new era in weaponry, where robotics, directed energy weapons and 3D-printed kit will feature on the battlefields of the future.

The advent of swarm technology heralds a period that could reverse the trend of the past quarter of a century, which has seen the deployment of fewer but more advanced — and expensive — weapons platforms. The next generation of weapons may see sophisticated technology systems outdone by the sheer numbers of autonomous swarms.

A DJI Phantom 4 drone carries a bag of powder during a simulated terrorist raid in South Korea © Bloomberg

“The result [of swarm technology] will be a paradigm shift where mass once again becomes the decisive factor on the battlefield, where having the most intelligent algorithm may be more important than having the best hardware,” says Mr Scharre.

The US has prioritised expensive, highly advanced hardware such as Global Hawk drones that require a team of dozens to keep them in the air. The advantage of swarms is that they require comparatively low-tech hardware knitted together with advanced software. Some in China see robotics as part of an asymmetric warfare in which an opponent whose overall capabilities are regarded as technologically inferior can defeat a superior one.

“The People’s Liberation Army anticipates that swarm intelligence and swarming tactics could serve as an asymmetric means to target high-value US weapons platforms,” says Elsa Kania, an independent researcher on Chinese military affairs.

This is creating tensions within the ranks of China’s defence establishment, where the competition for resources and funding is intense amid a radical overhaul of the services. Military leaders want expensive planes and ships that rival American weapons. But a growing faction within the PLA favours committing more resources to next-generation weapons.

Wang Weixing, a military research director at the PLA, is one of a number who argue that Beijing’s focus on matching the US in technology — stealth fighters, carrier killer missiles, aircraft carriers — is wrong-headed and that it should adopt an “asymmetric” strategy focused on drones.

“As people are still preparing for a high-tech war, the old and new are becoming intertwined to become a new form of hidden complex ‘hybrid war’,” he wrote in June in a front-page commentary in the PLA Daily, the military’s flagship publication. “Unmanned combat is gradually emerging. While people have their heads buried in the sand trying to close the gap with the world’s military powers in terms of traditional weapons, technology-driven ‘light warfare’ is about to take the stage.”

How a US drone swarm worked

The October 2016 exercise by the US military at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California saw the release of 103-strong swarm of Perdix drones. The drones, each with a wingspan of just under 30 centimetres, flew four “missions” under the command of an operator, who followed them on a tactical screen, above. The operator calls a “play” — a general order — which is then interpreted by the swarm. Drone swarms share a distributed “brain” for decision-making and can adapt to circumstances.

China, which is at the centre of the commercial drone industry, has some advantages as the era of unmanned systems dawns. Manufacturers such as DJI, Zerotech and Ehang dominate the global consumer drone industry and many of these private sector companies have been co-opted to work for the PLA.

“It is increasingly blurred what is civilian and what is military, especially in areas like UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles],” says Tai Ming Cheung, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Co-operation at the University of California, San Diego.

For example, the drone used by CETC in the June swarm demonstration was the X-6 Skywalker, a commercial model that can be easily customised. One US drone engineer, who asked not to be named, says: “If the military advantage is going to the country that can make the largest amounts of cheap commodity electronics, then watch out for China.”

Chinese leaders have trumpeted technological advances even as the country’s armed forces plan to shed 300,000 personnel by 2018, becoming more streamlined and combat-ready. Autonomously operating swarms would require far fewer active troops.

Swarm technology, say defence experts, is attractive to Beijing as it would allow China to project force with a lower probability of military confrontation. Drones, unlike fighter jets or aircraft carriers, are less threatening and can be shot down or captured without triggering a military escalation. In December, China seized a US underwater drone in the South China Sea, which the PLA then handed back after a few days. This would have triggered a major crisis had it been a manned vehicle.

China is also pushing into other areas of robot technology including an imitation of Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” troop support robot, which resembles something out of Star Wars and is designed to carry equipment into battle. Developed by arms conglomerate Norinco, Mr Kashin likens it to “a $1m donkey”. Yunzhou Tech Corporation, based in Zhuhai, displayed an unmanned boat armed with a machine gun turret at a military technology exhibition in Beijing last month. A Chinese website recently published photos of a torpedo-carrying autonomous vehicle that skims the surface of the water. The product could be used to target submarines. “These are not like anything anyone else has,” says Mr Kashin.

“China has come a long way in its development of unmanned systems in a relatively short period,” says Michael Chase, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.

Jack Midgley of Deloitte’s defence consulting practice says that, judging by China’s poor record of integrating technologies and new organisational models, the inherently conservative attitude of its military may put it at a disadvantage. “The natural risk aversion of military commanders is why it takes years or decades to integrate new technologies,” he says.

China is not alone in this — some service branches in the US are also resistant to drones taking away human roles such as pilots. But Beijing’s attitude to new defence technology may be evolving. In 2001, the PLA created its first training curriculum for UAV personnel. Today, at least three out of the five PLA branches, the army, navy and air force, have incorporated UAV units into their operations and training.

“The PLA may not have as many qualms [as the US] about having UAVs become a much larger part of its war structure,” says Ms Kania. Ultimately, she says, it is not the country that invents the latest technology but the one that figures out how best to integrate it on the battlefield that will have the most success. The new arms race may not be about driving technological change, so much as adapting to it.

Factories ready for military role

High technology undergoes a dramatic transformation when it hits China — everything from smartphones to laptops to telecommunications networks go from being expensive and proprietary to being cheap and easy to produce in a few short years. Thousands of factories in southern China churn out components for iPhone or iPad imitations, sometimes in the same factories that produce the Apple gadgets themselves.

Could the commodification of technology happen to defence industries as well? This is an important question for The Pentagon. The prospect of robot wars in the future raises the question of whether quantity will finally trump quality when it comes to military hardware. This trend clearly favours China as the world’s manufacturing powerhouse.

Another trend favouring China is that next-generation defence technologies are more and more indistinguishable from the civilian technologies mass produced in cities like Shenzhen. While recent breakthroughs in stealth and precision guidance were purely military applications, the next round might be in areas such as facial recognition or autonomous driving, and are as likely to come from the private sector as from the military, both in the US and China. This blurring of lines has been recognised by President Xi Jinping (left), who this year created a Military-Civil Integration Development Commission with himself as head.

Military industry in China now feeds off the private industry and vice versa: China has become the market leader in commercial drones, as well as a robust exporter of military drones based on US models like the Reaper and the Predator to countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

A third trend favouring China is that software has become more important than hardware. As part of an effort to reduce their reliance on US technology companies such as IBM and Oracle, Chinese banks have begun using systems based on simpler servers kitted out with advanced software.

Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer, has embraced “software defined networks” that are designed to be much cheaper than the previous proprietary networks, run by cloud-based software that knits together standardised routers and switches. Autonomous drone swarm technology represents the culmination of this trend — cheap, commoditised hardware functioning on high-powered software. Charles Clover

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