The IDF made history recently with the first use of a drone swarm in combat. In the ‘Guardian of the Walls’ campaign it launched to tackle rockets fired from Gaza in mid-May, the IDF used a swarm of multicopter drones to locate, identify and strike militants. The swarm proved so effective that the IDF is rolling them out to more units. New details show that it is already far more capable than other swarms under development.
A swarm is not simply a number of drones in the air together. The drones exchange data and work as a single co-operative unit, navigating and maintaining separation to avoid collisions autonomously. A key advantage is that one operator controls many drones and can cover a wide area and many targets.
Several other nations are working on similar tactical swarms, but Israel has always been a leader in unmanned aircraft. Modern U.S. interest was sparked by Israel’s spectacular success with drones in the 1982 Lebanon war; the ground-breaking U.S. Predator was designed by Abraham Karem, who built drones for the Israeli Air Force before moving to the U.S in the 1970s.
No surprise then that Israel is ahead of the pack in swarming drones. The IDF deployed the new swarm for a very specific mission: to seek and destroy militants firing rockets before they could get away. The rockets are small enough that they can be manually set up on a simple launch rail and fired off before the IDF can locate the firing position.
An IDF Paratroopers Brigade support company, previously armed with mortars, was converted to a drone swarm unit. Their commander claimed in local media that the swarm unit carried out more than thirty successful operations, some against targets many kilometers from the Gaza-Israel border.
The Seek-and-Destroy unit was clearly not just waiting for rockets to launch and reacting to them. Their swarm was actively looking for attacks. One method would be to land the drones in an area, and ‘perch and stare’ for persistent surveillance.
“As part of the capabilities of a drone, there is the ability to stay in a certain area and perform its task until it is necessary to replace the battery,” an IDF spokesman told me.
The IDF will not disclose the type of drones were used, but there do seem to be multiple different types within the swarm.
“The swarm has various sensors, some of the drones are multi-sensory, we cannot elaborate beyond that,” said the spokesman.
This would certainly include daylight cameras and thermal imaging, and possibly acoustic sensors to pinpoint rocket launches or gunfire. It may include more exotic devices, like the IDF’s ‘Spiderman drone,’ seen on video in an exercise last year, which attaches itself to a wall and may use through-the-wall sensors.
What is really impressive though is how the swarm data was used. Drone intelligence is often siloed: the operator may see where the enemy is, but passing that information to another unit can involve several links in the communication chain and long delays. The IDF swarm is closely integrated with the Torch 750 command and control system, thanks to a ‘plug and play’ architecture, and appears to communicate rapidly.
“There is a broad basis which includes elements of command and control, decentralization and information fusion of several elements,” said the spokesman. “As part of this basis, the system was developed with ‘open architecture,’ that allows the addition of any elements as needed.”
This meant for example that target data could be rapidly shared with the IDF’s VISINT 9900 Unit, was officially which handles visual intelligence, mapping and interpreting images — and answering the crucial question “is this a valid target?”
It also means that the drone swarm can engage targets itself – presumably some units of the swarm are warhead-carrying ROTEM-L or similar – or it can hand off data to other weapons. One report mentions the swarm providing targeting for the new Iron Sting 120mm mortar round. It may not quite be as simple as seeing a target appear in the drone video, and clicking on it to drop a 30-pound mortar bomb with pinpoint precision…but the IDF may be getting close.
“The world can expect drone swarms to grow increasingly sophisticated, to include drones of different sizes equipped with different types of sensors and weapons,” says analyst Zak Kallenborn, a research affiliate at the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). “From a military perspective, that allows more options to engage an adversary and may force them to respond to multiple threats at once.”
Seamless communication could network the swarm with artillery, missiles, larger drones, air strikes and other assets into a unified kill web, with the swarm as pervasive, persistent eyes and ears on the ground.
The Torch 750 command and control software, Iron Sting and many of the IDF’s drones are all made by Elbit Systems, which may help with achieving the tight integration needed. However, the open architecture suggests that others can join in as needed.
Plans are now on hand to roll out similar drone swarm companies with other IDF infantry units. Lessons will have been learned, and already the users will be requesting upgrades and new capabilities based on their experience with using the swarm in action.
This process already seems to be under way. Asked about plans for developing swarming technology going forward, the spokesman could only say:
“There is an intention to expand the swarm’s ability and additional abilities that we cannot elaborate on.”
One of the big concerns about such swarms is the issue of autonomy, and just how much real control the operators have over their actions. So far, there has always been a human behind any kill/no kill decisions, but with more capable swarms, things may not be so simple.
“The global community needs to have a serious conversation about where this technology is headed,” warns Kallenborn.