In 2015 at White Sands Missile Range the US predicted the drone swarm threat. It’s not clear the lessons were learned. Tthe report noted “in this season’s Network Integration Evaluation taking place on White Sands Missile Range and Fort Bliss, coordinated units of remotely operated and automated aircraft will be used to represent a possible threat on tomorrow’s battlefields.” The Targets Management Office of the Program Executive Office for Simulation Training and Instrumentation used quadcopters to simulate drone swarms. It was tto simulate their use and how to counter them.
“ATEC is our customer, they tasked us to come out and look at swarming, the variations and the payloads we can apply to this,” said James Story, an engineer with the Targets Management Office, PEO STRI. “We saw this as a threat that wasn’t being addressed and ATEC agreed.”
The report goes on to note that they looked at what these small drones could do. CENTCOM head Kenneth McKeznie in 2020 said that small commercial drone swarms were one of his main concerns, so clearly the lessons were not learned in 2015. “While drones are seeing expanded use, with may different countries building, deploying, and selling large airplane-sized drones for military purposes, small-scale drones are still gaining a foothold, mostly due to the technical limitations involved. That technology is expected to improve, and the small-scale drone become more viable as a possible weapon, and it’s that preparation for the future that is driving the swarming project,” the 2015 report noted.
The drill predicted what would happen when one control station could handle multiple drones. Iran carried out a swarm attack on Saudi Arabia in 2019. Syrian rebels have done the same. Israel’s Rafael has used lasers against potential drone swarm threats. “The concern comes from the affordability of the off-the-shelf systems. Small military drones, custom designed for the military mission, and outfitted with the latest hardware can get quite expensive. The Tarantula Hawk Micro Air Vehicle, a VTOL capable military drone about the size of a large bucket comes with a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with hundreds of thousands more needed to train an operator. An off-the-shelf quadcopter, like the 3-D Robotics Iris series used in the test, can be bought for around $1,000, and requires almost no training to operate.”
The Network Integration Evaluation wanted to use data from the drill to learn how to use drones and adapt them for the military. “The payloads make the difference. When you add video, the camera, the heavier battery for more flight time … so for the smaller bird here the flight time goes from about 15 minutes, to about seven minutes of flight time,” Story said.
The article at the time predicted the future threat, coordinating numerous drones to overwhelm a defender. Ten drones at a time were coordinated. “The drones will be used for short range missions, flooding the airspace with drones to generate disruptive radar signatures, as well as being used as a kind of spotter, using simple video cameras to try and locate Soldiers and units.” They also simulated dropping bombs with the drones, something ISIS would later do. White Sands was the right place, with 3,200 square miles to play in.