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FIRST ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SWARM DRONES RECENTLY UTILIZED ON THE BATTLEFIELD: IMPLICATIONS

Updated: Aug 20

Anastasios Giannakis, Michael Shoesmith, Madison Thomas, Weapons and Tactics (W/T) Team

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021


Armed drone deployed on the battlefield[1]


The drones' use is changing the landscape of war, as it has been observed in various military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. In mid-May 2021, the latest developments on these weapons systems occurred when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), during the recent clashes in Gaza, used a swarm of Artificial Intelligence (AI) drones for the first time to geolocate, target, and strike Hamas terrorists.[2] It seems that the purpose of these advanced weapon systems is to saturate the enemy's air defenses so that even if most of the drones are shot down or captured, some would be able to deliver the desired strike autonomously. Drone technology is rapidly evolving for its military applications, and artificial intelligence promises to bring about significant changes in how drones are used in the near future. The use of drone swarms can be designed with the cooperation of the drone operators, but the vehicles cannot act autonomously - limited to the common perception offered by the sensors (usually optical) they carry. So, even if the operators are in the same place, the coordination between them can be problematic. Thus, the armed forces of the most technologically advanced states are investing billions in upgrading their weapon’s arsenal by acquiring/developing a fully deployable AI swarm of drones. Israel is at the forefront of this weapon development after launching a real drone swarm on the battlefield, and this should be a warning for the United States (US) and its allies to reduce any risks that these systems may pose for national and international security.


The Israeli army constantly deploys Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) within its territories to drop tear-gas at demonstrations organized by Palestinians, to detect Hezbollah active/secret bases in Lebanon, and to attack Jihadists in Gaza.[3] However, the drones that Israel utilized in the recent conflict in Gaza against Hamas, built by the Israeli startup company Sightec, are thought to be the first UAVs that can make missions without GPS assistance.[4] These drones function on “their own judgment” and can reach their destination without human intervention. This is unlike the drones used so far, which are navigated in two ways; either remotely piloted or autonomously piloted with GPS and inertial navigation systems. Following a test conducted in southern Israel using drones with NaviSight technology, the Israeli company stated that the specially integrated software uses 3D mapping to help bypass obstacles and can convert the cameras of the device into sensors that use real-time artificial intelligence for navigation without being dependent on GPS, which is vulnerable to cyber-attacks.[5] Another important feature of these drones is the ability of their weapons systems to detect, track and attack targets automatically. Already, according to analysts, the next plausible step is for drones to fly in swarms while assessing targets, sharing tasks, and performing them with little or no human intervention. The real leap forward is a swarm, in which the pilot assigns an operation, and the drones communicate with each other on how to accomplish it.


Drones can be operated as swarms utilizing software that allows them to interact, share information and decide what their actions should be on each occasion. Large swarms require a fully distributed communication system, which scales and optimizes “multi-to-many” communication. At a basic level, a drone swarm is a floating dynamic wireless mesh network, commonly known as a wireless grid.[6] To do this, the use of artificial intelligence seems to be necessary. Because the reaction time on a real battlefield must be less than the reaction time of a group of people, swarm drones should be able to assess the threat to the swarm and at the same time identify the target to maneuver to achieve the desired strike, adjusting their movement according to the losses they suffer. That is, some of the drones would undertake the detection of targets, others the suppression of the air defense, others the interference in the enemy radars and electronic signals, and others will carry out the bombing. Such a diverse swarm is highly likely to bypass any potential anti-drone capabilities that terrorist organizations may possess.


Loitering drone swarms offer the advantage of identifying targets on the ground. There would usually be a delay between the drone receiving the information and an individual approving such sighting and then the next step, whether it would be to attack or follow, but the drones in their swarms can all play separate roles, communicating the information they possess in real-time. AI swarms of recon-specific drones communicating with attack-specific drones allow them to utilize much more efficient and capable attacks than those by conventional manned drones. Numerous implications of these systems could be assessed for kinetic and non-kinetic military operations, were they to be further advanced and utilized. When it comes to non-kinetic operations, especially the intelligence missions, the intelligence gathering missions would involve data that could be saved and processed automatically, proceeding to estimate possible tactics and attack patterns of the enemy. This application of such systems would be extremely efficient to prevent terrorist activities from occurring. Apart from non-kinetic operations, kinetic operations, meaning direct attacks, or a combination, can be facilitated. If the drone swarms are going to be further automated with AI, they would be capable of getting in position to not only set up reconnaissance missions and detect the enemies’ hiding sites but also to eliminate them instantly. A more serious application could be if the military forces connected them with ground-based missiles, then the strike's damage would not be limited to the payload carried by a UAV, instead, it can utilize the full force of the military's firepower. This technology would likely be featured in a potential conflict between major conventional military powers. Israel, for instance, fears that Iran is advancing such weapons as well, thus any weapons development on a greater scale is indisputably permitted. Both sides will try to paralyze their opponent's GPS satellites in low orbit, creating widespread chaos on the modern battlefield.


AI drone swarming transcends the limits of human ability, pushing the capabilities for offensive or defensive military operations further than was possible utilizing conventional processes. These systems would, especially, allow counterterrorism forces to stay ahead of terrorist organizations as it is highly unlikely that terrorist organizations attempting to attack government-level assets will have the capability to overcome AI CT measures having as an example Israeli forces against Hamas. Such technology requires technological and computing expertise and equipment beyond the scope of the majority of terrorist organizations. Applying AI in drone technology is likely to lead terrorist organizations to find other means of inflicting terror. This is something the Israeli government and defense forces have invested large amounts of resources into. Drone attacks will be less common if the target government possesses AI swarming capabilities; as such an ability renders a rudimentary drone-borne IED or surveillance drone ineffective. It is highly likely that the off-the-shelf drones being adapted for terrorism purposes will be considered an ineffective form of attack if such AI and swarming technology are widely adopted by CT organizations.


The modern UAV, mostly designed in the crucible of the Middle East's conflicts, is an integral part of the trend towards the automation of the future war. However, while the armed UAV is a versatile weapon, experience shows that it is not too complicated as a weapon system: its lifespan in battle is limited by inevitable damage or destruction. Notwithstanding, AI swarm drones can long-last on a battlefield as they cannot be destroyed easily due to the large number of UAVs that the advanced military forces can deploy, control, and coordinate at once. The fact that UAVs can play such a visible role in modern warfare is a big part of their appeal. Whether or not there is an agreement with the theory that wars are fought when the cost of an attack is much lower than the cost of defense, it is intuitively clear and experimentally proven that losing a drone is less painful and has a lower cost than losing a manned aircraft or other heavy weapons. Recent conflicts with Palestine highlight the accurate level of Israel’s drone swarming capabilities. The Seek-and-Destroy (S&D) company of the IDF’s Multi-Dimensional Group (MDG) was founded in an attempt to combine elite soldiers with technical experts to utilize unmanned assets in a way that would give Israel an unparalleled advantage on the ground.[7] Developing their unique command, control, and communications and intelligence (C4I) platform allows the AI drones to communicate with all available intelligence resources to build a highly advanced picture of the battleground. Drone swarms utilizing this information have the potential to make decisions far faster than any human operating such equipment.[8] This is also almost exclusively a CT effort as the amount of technology being processed requires extensive amounts of processing power and complex computing infrastructure. This is likely a key reason that attacks on Israel during the recent conflicts consisted largely of rudimentary rocket barrages. It is likely to be a waste of resources for groups such as Hamas to attempt to gain cyber capabilities comparable to the IDF because they are not adequate to confront Israel's activities. Reverting to minimalist, low-tech forms of attack may be a result of this swarm technology being deployed.


Despite the cutting edge technology that is being utilized to leverage the military capabilities of Israel, there are concerns that the use of AI swarms of drones will make the arms race, especially between the US, Russia, China, Iran, and Israel more competitive as drone swarms seem to be of the utmost military importance due to the limitations of control that humans can have over them, which renders them more flexible to be utilized in many operations, and the subsequently generated new types of helpful asymmetric warfare operations against hostile forces. No matter what the benefits are, the security threats would be international. Although standalone technologies and artificial intelligence software for unmanned systems are evolving, there is still no reliable fully autonomous artificial intelligence drone. More importantly, AI cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. The data it receives, when, for example, it identifies or misidentifies its human surroundings as hostile forces or the objects in the environment, can be problematic, and the lack of credible, actionable intelligence can confuse the system. The growing robotization of the battlefield, which takes place thanks to autonomy and artificial intelligence integrated into the drones, is almost certainly becoming a reality, however the imposition of rules on less futuristic weapons that "can think for themselves" may not be so clear. Weapons tend to have different levels of autonomy in terms of command and control, decision-making processes, and functions. This can obscure whether the person is inside or outside the ”circuit” (active human decision-making, human veto power, or only human supervision). Understanding what constitutes essential human control deserves more policy attention to impose limits on the autonomy of lethal action.


The states and their armies that are capable of utilizing AI weapons systems must follow certain restrictions when it comes to the proliferation of autonomous drone swarms. Experts believe that Israel’s AI drone swarms exceed the recent proposals by the International Committee of Red Cross to limit or ban such weapons.[9] There is an argument that classifies the swarm drones as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) since it has been mentioned by intelligence experts that if all of these drones are equipped with bombs or missiles, swarms could carry out a heavy attack with mass casualties.[10] It is highly recommended that since there might not be any signed international agreements that control the advancements on this kind of weapons by state actors, even though that could set limits to avoid misusing them, then the states and their armies must develop counter systems to ensure the prevention of causing prolonged standing conflicts between powerful militaries and the potential proliferation of Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons by utilizing AI swarm drones. For example, Israel has developed the “Iron Dome” air defense system that has integrated a laser weapon capable of destroying individual drones.[11] Such a weapon could be further developed so that it could engage rapidly or in a network to destroy a swarm of drones. However, operation in low clouds (fog) still causes major problems. In addition to laser weapons, cyber solutions are being developed to defeat drone threats. Interference systems, such as Lockheed ICARUS, can detect and track commercially available drones.[12] The multi-spectral sensor system detects and characterizes incoming drones within seconds, before using the electromagnetic activity in cyberspace to turn them off or allow an operator to control them and land them in a safe area.[13] The last major threat could be non-state actors, especially terrorist organizations engaged in conflicts with states that already use such weapons systems, like Hamas against Israel. States should be on high alert because these weapons could be in the hands of terrorists by collecting them from the battlefields, cyber attacking them and taking control of them, or while being state sponsored by states that indirectly want to attack its enemies. Thus, it would be advisable to establish a safety net by setting up time restrictions while being deployed and operating on the battlefield. The Weapons and Tactics CTG team recommends that the armed forces possessing AI swarm drones should primarily utilize them on specific counterterrorism operations to defeat terrorist organizations active in disputed areas.


At the Counterterrorism Group (CTG), the Weapons and Tactics (W/T) Team is closely monitoring through intelligence gathering of all weapons developments, including those accelerating the use of AI. Weekly team Intelligence and Analysis Reports (AIRs) are shared with the intelligence community to help detect the threats arising from the advanced weapons being deployed on battlefields that could have innumerable damages in regional conflicts. The W/T Team will further research the recent clashes in Gaza, where AI swarm drones were utilized by Israel, and will remain actively engaged in providing authentic analysis about the potential positive or negative implications to regional and international security. W/T in cooperation with CENTCOM will continue the intelligence gathering of any recent threatening military operations in the region and keep records of the latest developments on such weapons in order to cover certain intelligence gaps and bring awareness to authorities by providing solid risk assessments.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Armed drone deployed on the battlefield” by Snoreteezy licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Israel used world’s first AI-guided combat drone swarm in Gaza attacks, New Scientist, June 2021, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2282656-israel-used-worlds-first-ai-guided-combat-drone-swarm-in-gaza-attacks/amp/

[3] Israel’s drone industry becomes global force, France24, November 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20191128-israel-s-drone-industry-becomes-global-force

[4] In ‘first’, delivery drone gets to destination in Israel without GPS signal, The Times Of Israel, February 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-first-delivery-drone-gets-to-destination-in-israel-without-gps-signal/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wireless Mesh Networks, Telegrid, 2021, https://telegrid.com/wireless-mesh-networks

[7] IDF Debuts Drone Swarms to Seek and Attack Hidden Targets, Defense Update, June 2021 https://defense-update.com/20210613_drone-swarms.html

[8] Drone Swarms Are Getting Too Fast For Humans To Fight, U.S. General Warns, Forbes, January 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2021/01/27/drone-swarms-are-getting-too-fast-for-humans-too-fight-us-general-warns/?sh=44d19643372c

[9] Red Cross Calls for More Limits on Autonomous Weapons, Defense One, May 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2021/05/red-cross-calls-limits-autonomous-weapons/174018/

[10] Israel’s Drone Swarm Over Gaza Should Worry Everyone, Defense One, July 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2021/07/israels-drone-swarm-over-gaza-should-worry-everyone/183156/

[11] Lasers, integration and mobility: Israel races to stop growing threat from drones, Defense News, May 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/unmanned/2021/05/24/lasers-integration-and-mobility-israel-races-to-stop-growing-threat-from-drones/

[12] Technology That Counters Drone Swarms, Lockheed Martin, 2021, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/2016/webt-laser-swarms-drones.html

[13] Ibid.

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