The Army is testing out ‘wolfpacks’ of swarming drones

The Army is testing out ‘wolfpacks’ of swarming drones thumbnail

In the desert of Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground, the Army trained for the future of war under the watchful eyes of a drone “wolfpack.” The Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise (EDGE) 22 ran from April 25 through May 13, and the task at its center was figuring out how soldiers will work and fight alongside a swarm.

A drone swarm looks almost like an individual aircraft. The military can still use drones to scout and attack from above, but it can do so by using sensors and weapons on many small aircraft with their own engines, wings, and directions.

The exercise involved four swarms with up to seven drones each. This is a significant step towards making drones swarms a viable tool for war. Each soldier who pilots a drone is less capable of responding to immediate threats. A swarm director can control drones, which allows one person to do the work that would previously have required seven remote pilots.

This is what the Army called the “wolfpack”. It also discusses the different capabilities of drones using the jargon “Air Launched Effects” or “ALE”.

At EDGE22, soldiers with the 82nd Airborne launched the swarms in four waves: first a scouting wave, then a second scouting wave designed to overwhelm enemy ability to track and detect, followed by a third wave with weapons (or drones that could direct artillery and missiles), and a fourth wave that did post-battle assessment, a kind of scouting in reverse.

The exercise involved people from all departments of defense, including soldiers from Canada, Italy and Germany. It was also viewed by observers from three other European countries and Australia.

[Related: The Army’s launching drones from dune buggies. Here’s why.]

“EDGE22 marked the largest ALE swarm to date, maxing out at seven in one swarm, with only one pilot on the ground needed to execute the swarms’ tasks,” said the Army in a release. “This layered capability will allow commanders to make real-time decisions while keeping Soldiers safe. This will allow for a situation that can develop until ground forces are absolutely necessary .”

The drones were launched from helicopters and racks on trucks. The Army can use a swarm to fly overhead, even if there are no friendly aircraft nearby. It also demonstrated that drones can be deployed from helicopters to cover additional scouting before an aerial attack.

The specific drones used in the swarm were ALTIUS 600s, a tube-launched drone that works with modular payloads. This allows the drones to be outfitted with specific sensors for a given mission, jammers to counter other drones, or even explosive payloads so the drone can be turned into a Switchblade-like weapon.

[Related: How drones are helping fuel propaganda in Ukraine]

Drones can be used in many ways. Insurgent and irregular forces have used drones in the past to launch flurry attacks, using multiple UAVs against anti-air defenses. In Syria in 2018, insurgent-launched drones struck a Russian airbase. This is a threat that anti-air weapons could mitigate at the time, but only at the expense of expensive missiles.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has seen drones used for combat, with many scouting drones guiding artillery on both sides and with loitering munitions like the US-supplied Switchblade drone featuring in direct attacks. The equipment available to counter drones will depend on the equipment of the attacked forces. They can either try to shoot the drone down or use a focused antenna jammer (if equipped) to disable it in the sky.

Drones pose a serious threat to human life because they are often made up of multiple aircraft. Even if there are only a few drones scouting, data sharing between drones with human operators could allow one scout to provide the exact coordinates for an entire artillery battery.

“Drones are expanding our reach. We need to ensure that our concepts are compatible with that technology.

Kelsey D. Atherton

Read More