Mass swarms of dozens or hundreds of drones controlled by artificial intelligence are widely considered to be one of the more troubling weapons finding its way into the modern battlefield, one with the potential to be far cheaper and thus more accessible to non-state actors than others. advanced ammunition.
The world witnessed a taste of the new military technology, albeit a limited one, in May during the 11-day conflict between Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza, as Israeli defense forces used flocks of drones across the strip to spot Hamas rocket launches and attack those sites. in what appears to be one of the first significant, publicly recognized real applications of the concept.
During the fighting, the IDF fought to prevent Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups from firing rockets and mortar shells into Israel. At the end of the conflict, more than 4,000 projectiles were fired from the Gaza Strip, killing more people in Israel, injuring more and regularly sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis to bomb shelters for nearly two weeks.
In an effort to prevent these attacks, the military worked to develop new methods of finding a launching pad that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had buried and concealed throughout the Gaza Strip, in schoolyards, homesteads and otherwise deep inside civilian areas. For the first time, the IDF’s artificial intelligence capabilities were brought into question, helping human analysts interpret a huge amount of satellite and aerial surveillance images to find the launch pads, some of which were built to be used multiple times. This led to the Israeli military intelligence declaring the Gaza campaign the world’s “first AI war.”
In an application of artificial intelligence, the Israeli military deployed small flocks of quadcopter drones across the southern Gaza Strip, with each unit monitoring a specific land, the Times of Israel learned at the time. When a rocket or mortar impact was discovered, other armed aircraft or ground-based units attacked the source of the fire.
According to the Walla news site, drone swarms were used dozens of times during the fighting by a hitherto classified company from the Paratroopers Brigade, based on concepts developed by the IDF’s experimental Ghost Unit, which is tasked with trying and creating new tactics and fighting style for the military.
“After a year of preparation and exercises, the situation came, and the air detection system is able to find the enemy and destroy it and bring the operational performance we are looking for,” the company manager, who for security reasons can only be identified by his rank and first Hebrew initial, maj. “Mem,” said the outlet.
“We conducted more than 30 slaughterhouses with drone swarms, which collected accurate intelligence and helped other drones carry out attacks on the targets,” he said.
During the 11-day campaign, called the Operation Guardian of the Walls, Mem’s unit worked with the Elbit defense contractor, which produced the drones and other units within the IDF to fine-tune its capabilities in real time.
According to Mem, while the first use of his unit was in Gaza, it was more of a test drive for the real threat they are preparing for: Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is considered a far more powerful enemy than Hamas.
“We do not rest on our laurels. We are already looking north and preparing for operations in the next war, ”he said.
The military also plans to expand the use of this technology to other land units in the future.
However, Israeli drone expert Tal Inbar said it was not clear if these were really the first drone swarm attacks in the world, as has been claimed in media reports in recent days, but this was nonetheless a significant milestone in the use of technology.
“You can say that this is one of the first times that Israel officially recognizes it,” he said.
Drone swarms are not very new technologies, nor are they found only in the military field. In fact, most people have encountered the technology in the form of high-tech light shows, as Israelis did in 2018, when hundreds of drones were flown in formation over the annual Independence Day event on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
According to Inbar, the technical definition of a drone swarm is “a number of aircraft flying together for a specific mission. It could be something military, or it could create a bunch of beautiful lights in the sky. ”
Although the latter seems trivial, Inbar maintained that operating hundreds or thousands of drones at once – with wind and other atmospheric changes – is not a small feat, which is why it is only carried out by large companies that Intel, in the case of Independence Day, has the necessary technical capabilities.
At the same time, a drone swarm is not just a large number of drones, all flying together. To qualify, the aircraft must also communicate and coordinate their actions – at least to some extent – that require some degree of artificial intelligence.
So while Israel’s Independence Day light show would be considered a proper drone swarm, the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facility by several drones and cruise missiles allegedly by Iran would not do so. (Though Inbar notes that the attack revealed sophisticated possibilities in itself.)
“It would not be a swarm. I would call it a coordinated attack from several drones, ”said Inbar.
What distinguishes drone swarms from each other is the autonomy of the swarm, the degree to which they fly together – like a fishing school or a flock of birds – and not just everyone who flies in the formation of separate human operators.
According to Inbar, there are a variety of methods to deploy drone swarms, which can range in size from just a handful of ships to several thousand. In some cases, all the planes function as equal, while other drones have greater computing capabilities and act as commanders for the rest.
While humans still give the plane their mission – at the moment anyway – when swarms get bigger, more decision-making is left to the drones themselves.
“If you have five drones, you can control one and the others just copy what it does. It is a level, a lower level of capabilities, ”said Inbar.
“But when you have a bigger swarm, how they perform their mission, you or I as operators do not necessarily know or control in real time. Say you have 50 planes in the air, one of the smarter ones may decide to send five of them to a certain street and another five to another place or fly in a certain formation, ”he said.
A U.S. military study from 2018 showed that this AI-enabled swarm feature made weapons significantly more powerful. In that simulation, 800 drones in a swarm were able to destroy more targets in two hours than 1,000 drones that acted independently.
“Since all other possibilities are identical, the introduction of an intelligent algorithm increased the swarm’s efficiency, mortality, and capacity,” the study’s author, May, wrote. Sean Williams.
Drones were once operated solely by developed countries, but over time technology became cheaper and more accessible, and today they are widely available to the masses, including terrorist groups that have used them to lethal effect in conflicts around the world.
Artificial intelligence is no longer just something for superpowers
Countries, in turn, have developed methods to break down these individual drones, from nets fired from cannons to advanced spectrum warfare technology. And in fact, the IDF prevented several drone attacks from Hamas during the fighting in May, including the shooting down of an unmanned aircraft with the Iron Dome missile defense system in the first use of this system.
But many of these tools and tactics would quickly be overwhelmed if mass swarms were used on dozens or hundreds of autonomous aircraft.
Israel’s use of drone swarms during the May conflict created much international coverage because it indicates the rate at which this technology is evolving and being used in the real world.
Currently, the use of large swarms requires a high level of artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, which means that it is mostly located in larger nation states that have the necessary technical capabilities. But that is beginning to change.
“Artificial intelligence is not something that is only for superpowers,” Inbar said.