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RAF Uses Autonomous Drone Swarm Loaded With Decoys To Overwhelm Mock Enemy Air Defenses

Unlike a plane dropping expendable BriteClouds, in the recent demonstration, Leonardo noted that “the decoy packages were programmed and navigated to work collaboratively to cause maximum confusion.” Placing the jammers inside drones offers the ability to help space them out for optimal coverage across a wide area. The entire swarm provides immense additional flexibility by being able to rapidly shift its focus from one area to another to respond to new developments in the battlespace. Above all else, they allow BriteCloud to employ its bag of tricks over longer periods of time and even execute multiple electronic attacks instead of just one. 

At the same time, the off-the-shelf electronic warfare expendables are just that, expendable. If you lose one and its drone platform, it isn’t a big deal as they are meant to be expendable in the first place. As such, they are the very definition of attritable. This term refers to designs that could be recovered and reused, but that are also cheap enough for commanders to be willing to commit them to higher-risk missions where there is a significant chance of them getting knocked down.

The RAF is not the only one to be looking at drone swarms, or otherwise networking munitions and other expendable stores together to reduce duplication of effort and otherwise improve the efficacy of strikes and other missions. The U.S. Air Force is in the midst of its own networked munition program, called Golden Horde, and the Army recently revealed plans to develop swarms of air-launched drones carrying electronic warfare systems and other payloads, efforts that you can read about in more detail in these past War Zone pieces.

The general idea of using an autonomous swarm of drones to blind, confuse, and overwhelm an enemy’s integrated air defense network, or other sensor and communication nodes, is hardly new, either and is one of the most common missions envisioned for such a group of unmanned aircraft. Carrying out such missions in the open stages of conflict would make good sense as they would help clear paths for other manned and unmanned aircraft, including more vulnerable, non-stealthy types, to conduct follow-on kinetic strikes or carry out other tasks, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Depending on the size and capability of the basic drones in the swarm, its possible that entire autonomous grouping could carry out multiple missions itself simultaneously, including ISR and kinetic strike. Stand-in expendable decoys, such as BriteCloud, could be combined with other non-kinetic options, such as existing and emerging standoff decoys and expendable electronic warfare systems, as well. 

Last year, European missile consortium MBDA, of which Leonardo is a part, notably unveiled plans for a SPEAR-EW version of its SPEAR-3 miniature cruise missile. SPEAR-EW will carry an electronic warfare jammer, one that may well utilize technology from BriteCloud, instead of an explosive warhead. There has already been talk of networking SPEAR-EWs and SPEAR-3s together to carry strikes as their own kind of autonomous swarm. You can read more about SPEAR-EW and the concepts of operation surrounding it in more detail in this past War Zone piece.

This test also speaks to where the RAF in the United Kingdom is at developmentally when it comes to its drone swarm efforts, which it first unveiled plans for last year. The service had planned to establish a dedicated unit to explore both loyal wingman and swarm concepts, 216 Squadron, this year, but that has been delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

This demonstration of integrating BriteCloud into lower-end drones would certainly seem to offer a very viable path to a useful drone swarm capability for the RAF in the near term. It could be then combined it with higher-end, heavier unmanned aircraft capabilities as part of a broader swam strategy in the future, as well.

If nothing else, Leonardo’s demonstration in cooperation with the RAF highlights how drone swarms capable of carrying out a multitude of mission sets are moving ever closer to becoming a key component for future combat operations.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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