Sunday, July 8, 2012

Drones: Barrage Balloons of the Future

Matt Hipple, recent author of Cloud Combat: Thinking Machines in Future Wars for this month's Proceedings, and I have been tossing around innovative tactical uses for drones in our spare time.  Long story short, new technologies require new tactics.  This is our projection of a possible future.


circa 2035...

The American carrier battle group had been identified.   Although masterfully concealed in a shifting sea of phantom targets and spurious electro-magnetic signals, the Chinese systems had found their prey.  The screen showed a swarm of old PLANAF airplanes refitted as drones interspersed with manned modern fighter/attack aircraft converging on the American vessels.

Occasionally, red trackfiles, denoting the attacking aircraft, disappeared from the screen.  The Chinese commander had practiced the operation thousands of times before.  The American defensive screen was eliminating the aggressors at a prodigious rate, but this was a battle of numbers rather than maneuver.  Most of those downed aircraft were merely the refitted drones programmed as mindless missile sponges. As the attackers reached their air to surface launch ranges,  the missiles were released.  Up to that moment, all had gone according to plan. Then all hell broke loose.

The manned aircraft started reporting a progressive blooming on both their air to surface and air to air sensor suites.  One contact became three.  Three became nine.  Nine became a field of dispersed and re-forming shapes.  And then the contacts merely disappeared.  Chinese sensors were not being jammed; they were working perfectly: detecting something very real, something very wrong.

Pilots started declaring emergencies – engines catching on fire, stalling, sputtering.  The red blips, manned and unmanned disappeared one by one.  The American fighters, tracked by long range radar, had retired to re-arm but aircraft were being lost by the dozen. Whole formations were lost in flitting clouds of radar scatter in and amongst the clouds, fiery explosions occasionally visible as Chinese fighters were swatted out of the sky by… something.


Drones had certainly caught the public’s eye over the past two decades: high profile assassinations initially made the news more frequently before fading into the commonplace. Meanwhile,  tacticians were quietly looking for ways to employ them more subversively.

Planners came to the critical realization that radically new technologies allowed for radically new tactics.  Microdrones had been the plaything of amateur aviation hackers for years – and their experimentation, subtly observed, became a tool of crowdsourced tactical free-play by forward-thinking military tacticians.

A subculture of primarily civilian amateur swarm warfare competitions arose.  The advent of cheap, 3D printing had allowed anyone with a few thousand spare dollars to create entire fleets, and for those with less cash, experiment on online forums that leveraged a gamification of the American culture.  A series of competetive robot battle brackets assured wide-spread and rigorous testing of new concepts and technologies at minimal cost.

The possibilities became apparent as the tacticians noticed hobbyists weren’t using the drones as manned aircraft were used -- huge unitary craft carrying massive payloads of weapons.  The drones were optimized  for specific situations, and got increasingly smaller, often doubling as weapons themselves.  They would mesh, forming large targets, only to disappear into many autonomous constituent parts.  Almost all were of the quadrotor design, and hardly any sported expensive avionics or complex propulsion systems.

Soon, four junior officer innovation fellows at the Naval Warfare Development Command got ahold of this idea, and received $10 million from the newly created Disruptive Tactics Fund.  What they created would change naval warfare forever.

They were given free reign to spend the money as they saw fit, buying whatever technology they determined would be useful within their designated funds.  As they experimented, blending open crowd-sourced technology and expertise with in-house proprietary technology, they created a three step tactical paradigm for employing their new systems:

First, Obfuscate.  The modern enemy had learned to deploy overwhelming numbers to overload the advanced defenses of capitol ships. However, advances in software and miniaturization allowed blue forces the opportunity to do the same to the enemy.  If an adversary could send 100 platforms, each costing $250,000 at a capital ship, then the defender would deploy 1000 assets costing $1,000 each.   These drones would be both collaboratively cooperative and individually autonomous, depending on the situation's requirements.  They would appear to radars and far-away observers as one entity, then at the appropriate time, split into a haze of autonomous units.  Their formations would be fluid, and seemingly random.  They could create large radar cross section entities at will, then disperse to become virtually  invisible.  Indeed, their dispersal looked to the enemy as the destruction of a target – yet, it was anything but.

Next, Obliterate.  Once directed by the Air Defense Coordinator, these drones would transition to a suicidal mindset.  These obfuscators turned into microkillers intent on fouling aircraft engines or detonating as aircraft approached.  Like an airborne, maneuverable minefield, the drones would disperse into clouds of floating debris.  They could rapidly ascend and hover for extended periods of time, maneuvering at will, either en masse, or individually, to preplanned or real time defensive locations.  When an enemy airframe was identified, the drones would explode, throwing tiny titanium pellets in a small, but devastating radius.  Radars would lose the drones in the ambient returns or ignore them while attuned to cross sections much larger.

Visual pickups were nearly impossible on 12 inch quadrotors while moving at high speeds.  Even the small explosions that threw the killer shrapnel into the sky were hard to see.  The only indications were severe engine problems as drones were sucked into intakes, or titanium pellets ripped through compressor blades.

Finally, Overwhelm.  The loss of so many drones was problematic, as only finite numbers could be carried and maintained before deployment.  The answer was off the shelf 3-D printing, which could quickly produce the majority of drone parts using cheaply obtained raw materials.  Deployed aboard ships, these printers saved space and time, producing fleets of drones on demand.  If a design modification needed to be made, changes were simply uploaded to the CAD database, and a new batch was printed from raw materials gathered and previously stored. No changes in supplier, supply chain, or vast administrative system were necessary.

While deployed in a combat zone, an entire part of a carrier’s hangar deck was devoted to the production of these defensive drones.  When the loss of one was detected, another was automatically created to replace it.  A mobile, persistent chaff cloud able to wreak havoc could be produced at will.  No en route maintenance was necessary, aside from ensuring there was an available supply of silicon, carbon, titanium, and other assorted raw minerals.

Furthermore, any ship in the fleet could be outfitted with printers capable of producing these drones.  Detached from a combined fleet, individual ships assigned to anti-piracy or counter-drug operations could deploy their own fleets of swarming, easily replaceable air assets.

An additional benefit of these drone swarms was persistent, over-the-horizon surveillance provided by evenly deployed networks.  Much as radio telescopes used in detecting the farthest reaches of the universe had been linked across the globe to create physically impossible aperture sizes, so too did evenly distributed drones emanating micro-bursts of energy allow for the world’s largest radar.   The persistent, energy saving hover mode could transform hunter-killers into passive collection platforms.

When these were first deployed in wargames, fleet commanders accustomed to traditional formations and manned aircraft tactics were incredulous.  But soon they came to appreciate the effect these utterly unorthodox tactics were having on their $450 million stealth platforms.  The most traditional ignored the results, knowing that such applications could "never happen" in the real world.  A number of curious few, however, asked to further develop the tactics and integrate them into their battle plans. They understood the disruptive effect it would have on American adversaries, and that new technologies required entirely new applications.


What the Chinese commander encountered was the first application in the next evolution of warfare.  Expecting the tried-and-true tactics of a change-wary institution, they encountered a decentralized, highly resilient system using readily available technology developed by an innovative cell of junior tacticians.  Bypassing normal vetting processes the navy was able to quickly harness advances in technology, processor speed, and miniaturization. By embracing risk, rather than managing it, the Navy stole a march on its opponents by deploying the tactics of tomorrow on today’s battlefield.


  1. Not sure I get it insofar as a quadrotor is bird-sized and could not carry the radar, nor would it have the speed or rate of climb/descent to move toward the many fast moving fighter jets and still have sufficient warhead size to create a near-miss kill.

    A Predator weighs about 2400 lbs to carry just two Hellfires that each weigh 100+ lbs, fly fast, but would have great difficulty shooting down a fast fighter. Experiments were tried with Stingers that failed. Other weapons may have succeeded in the classified arena...unknown. But all these weapons are heavier and higher performing than a small quadrotor.

    Thousands of smaller quadrotors would be a ship space, personnel, and launch/recovery nightmare, would have limited endurance, range, and altitude of operation at best, little likelihood or reuse, and would carry few sensors/weapons while being a major airspace challenge.

  2. They don't necessarily need radars if given general command direction before departing. They don't have to "intercept" so much as wait, depending on what mode. Quadrotors are also not limited in size, and in this scenario do not require any weaponry, just a self-destruction protocol based on proximity to enemy aircraft. They don't NEED advanced weaponry specifically because of their numbers.

    The quadrotors would actually be easy to store, because of their size and simple operation. Using 3D printing, replacement quadrotors, parts, and the like could be easily produced. As for recovery, they could easily bring themselves back to base. Landing in a "charging dock" is not a complicated operation.

  3. Scale issues prevent the drones you describe from existing. They would not be able to fly fast enough, far enough, or high enough to provide a realistic threat against military combat aircraft.

  4. This is a very unique and refreshing concept, but I do think technology is the main limitation in this ideal scenario. The mission requirements for these UAV's are extensive, and require superb range, acceleration, altitude capability, endurance, and fancy (i.e. heavy) communication suites - all within an exacting size/weight parameter depending on how stealthy the UAV shell needs to be. While quad-rotors are impressive, most that I have seen are limited in range because of battery size/life (30 min or less) and communication range (the more complex, the heavier), and I know of none that are rated for high altitudes (10K+). At least these UAV's wouldn't necessarily have to be burdened by a heavy payload, so that is an advantage.

    I do think that technology is on the cusp of some innovative breakthroughs, however, from battery (re)design to novel control algorithms. I hope that you have all seen the TED talk by Vijay Kumar on the quad rotor sensing and controls that are being worked on at Penn [linked below]. Whether supporting operations at sea or acting alongside troops on the ground, the potential that these quad rotor UAV's present in a military application is truly amazing.

    Back to the scenario, what about using small, stealthy, jet powered UAV's? The UAV's in question don't need to be limited to rotor design. Although the maintenance and logistical issues might pose a bigger problem, it's still an option that could allow for greater (maybe supersonic) speeds, extended ranges, and higher ceilings. What might swarms of miniaturized RQ-170's (for a crude example) be able to accomplish? Let's just hope an economy of scale can be secured...

    Or maybe use quad rotors as an inexpensive alternative to BAMS?

    Food for thought.

  5. Good comments and criticisms all...the tech is a possible future with inevitable advances. Of course it's far-fetched...that's the point. And as we've seen by the comments, people are looking for ways to improve upon a very rough, basic model. That's how innovation works -- even if the ultimate solution is 180 from the original proposal.

    Are quad-rotors the best? Maybe, maybe not. Could they stay aloft for the time I imply, and rapidly maneuver? Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe they would be deployed via airplane, or ICBM or whatever. The point is more to push the envelope in how we think about tactics. 99.9% chance this scenario would never play out. In fact, I think war with China highly unlikely, and we'll be dealing with annoying, but costly, brushfires far more often. But when it comes to tactical employment, thinking in crazy and scifi-ish ways is sometimes useful, even if 80 percent of it is ridiculous and just fun to think about.

    The real concepts can be boiled down to these points:
    1. Drones are new tech, therefore can use new tactics...with unknown possibilities
    2. 3D printing as a solution...with unknown possibilities
    3. JO innovation with the ability to tinker and supported from on high leading to...unknown possibilities
    4. Observing how the crowd employs tactics (MW3, other games, DIY drones)...with unknown possibilities

  6. As far as endurance goes, quadrorotors seem a fair bit away, simply because battery tech would need to take a leap forward. Wouldn't a swarm of hybrid airships (yes, balloons) with engines and small payloads be more efficient? Though truthfully, I don't really know how much helium would be needed to keep even an extremely efficient design aloft.

    Also, there would also be the primary hurdle of convincing anyone to fund hybrid airships, since not one has gotten past the experimental stage. They'd be slow, but I'd guess that they'd be cheap and easy to store if manufactured properly. I guess it wouldn't work in a tightly grouped suicide defense formation though... since the shrapnel from sufficiently powerful warheads would tear the neighboring drones apart too...

    Maybe installing a point defense type manpad? Or possibly even radar guided missiles targeted by offboard installations?

    Imagination's running wild now...
    Sadly, my neophiliac tendencies sometimes shut down any critical thinking in favor of the more interesting concept, so if I've spouted anything nonsensical, please feel free to call me out on it.

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  8. Another possibility would be using drones as antenna repeaters, allowing UHF line of site communications to go past the current limit. This would be helpful in case of a loss of satcoms, especially in controlling near (but over the horizon) unmanned vehicles.

  9. Well worth reading Daniel Suarez's new book Kill Decision, which has some excellent ideas about where drones might go.

  10. Its always a pleasure reading your post as you always come up with something new and different! San diego janitorial services

  11. I do see your point in this post. I do feel like drones over the years have spurred great innovations in terms of military surveillance and warfare. And not just drones but also the emergence of technology that can be used to manufacture military equipment on-demand. I particularly see your point on how microdrones could succeed as a military weapon. Technology that versatile and easily maneuverable could have a variety of uses, whether in surveillance or spec op assignments.

    Matt Wynan