Artist's concept of a drone swarm. Credit: C4ISRNET

The US has embarked on a program to develop electronic-warfare drone swarms, the latest in its multiple projects to master what could potentially be war-winning AI and drone technology, though with significant operational and strategic implications and risks.  

This month, Breaking Defense reported that the US Navy is seeking industry and government agencies to participate in a July 2024 exercise called Silent Swarm 2024, which aims to demonstrate early-stage unmanned systems’ capabilities to fight on the electromagnetic battlefield. 

Breaking Defense notes that the event, hosted by Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane, will showcase “swarming, small, attritable” unmanned systems capable of distributed electromagnetic attack, deception, and digital payload delivery, with the tech must be within readiness levels (TRL) two to five, with higher numbers indicating more advanced systems.

In a distributed attack, drones in a swarm share real-time data with one another to react quickly and precisely to environmental changes. Each drone can make real-time decisions in such an attack, optimizing the swarm’s algorithms to improve target detection and elimination. 

The source notes that the US Navy has a network of warfare centers spread throughout the US as part of its research and development enterprise designed to generate and test upcoming technologies.

It adds that the solicitation includes distributed delivery of electromagnetic energy, including high-power microwaves, to deny, degrade, disrupt, and deceive an adversary’s capabilities via high-mobility platforms.

Deception involves creating chaos and confusion in the electromagnetic spectrum, targeting adversary situational awareness, command and control, and decision-making processes to enable friendly forces freedom of maneuver.

Breaking Defense says the US Navy recently wrapped up its previous iteration of the event, which involved more than 300 personnel from across the military services in 30 technology initiatives. It says the office of the US undersecretary for defense also sponsors the exercise for research and engineering.

In addition, the source notes that the US Navy opened participation up to civilian agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAH), as well as foreign allies and partners including Australia and the UK.

How they work

Electronic-warfare drones can operate as part of a larger swarm with reconnaissance drones and loitering munitions.

First, reconnaissance drones would spot possible targets. Then electronic-warfare drones would provide electromagnetic interference to suppress enemy air defenses, enabling loitering munitions to go in for the kill. They could also work the other way around, acting as signal decoys to lure enemy air defenses into revealing their positions, after which loitering munitions can strike. 

MBDA’s SPEAR-EW electronic-warfare missile. Photo: Wikipedia

The US is pursuing several drone-swarm programs to boost manned aircraft’s sensor and weapons ranges, operate in heavily defended airspace, provide a decoy screen, and act as a force multiplier.

This month, a report by Asia Times said General Atomics has secured a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for Phase 3 of the LongShot program. The contract is valued at up to US$94 million.

The LongShot program aims to develop an unmanned-aircraft system that can be dropped from a bomber or fighter. The drone is expected to increase the engagement range and mission effectiveness of current fouth-generation jet fighters and air-to-air missiles. The LongShot drone may become an air-to-air loyal wingman, addressing the need for mass-produced and disposable aircraft in a potential great-power conflict.

Further, Asia Times reported this month that the US Department of Defense (DOD) has launched the Replicator Program, designed to advance rapidly the development of autonomous platforms that can be easily replaced in air, land, and sea domains. It aims to counter China’s increasing military capabilities, which could potentially become a threat in a conflict over Taiwan.

The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (PIU) will oversee the program and work with defense and non-traditional tech companies to speed up development.

Enhanced utility

The latest developments in artificial intelligence, mesh networks, and advanced networking capabilities have made it possible to implement a system that can function autonomously and in a decentralized manner, even in situations with limited bandwidth.

The Replicator program aims to transition toward a new paradigm of human-operated systems working together with autonomous systems while prioritizing ethics and compliance with the laws of armed conflict.

Moreover, Asia Times reported in February that the US DOD had initiated the “Autonomous Multi-Domain Adaptive Swarms-of-Swarms” (AMASS) project, which aims to develop a fleet of autonomous drone swarms that can be deployed from sea, air, and land to overpower enemy air defenses.

Artist’s conception of swarms of drones to be used in AMASS program. Image: Futuro Prossimo

This project aims to build thousands of autonomous drones that neutralize enemy defenses, including air defenses, artillery, missile launchers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

The AMASS program explores using swarms-of-swarms to conduct military operations in highly contested environments using low-cost swarms equipped with diverse sensors and kinetic and non-kinetic effectors. 

These multiple drone projects underscore the potential decisive effect drone swarms can have in a great-power conflict, potentially becoming a war-winning weapon when used correctly.

In line with that, Asia Times reported in May 2022 that the US Air Force conducted simulations with the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) office and RAND think-tanks. The simulations aimed to showcase the effectiveness of autonomous drone swarms in defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion.

In 2020, the simulations demonstrated that drone swarms using a distributed “mesh” laser data-sharing network were vital in securing a victory for the US. This approach could overcome the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that China may deploy to deter or defeat a US intervention.

Using drone swarms with stealthy manned platforms such as the F-35 and F-22 could be highly effective against Chinese warships, aircraft, and missile batteries. Networking these drones improves situational awareness for manned platforms. The swarm could also overwhelm enemy radar scopes by presenting multiple targets simultaneously.

Thanks to machine learning and AI applications, autonomous drone swarms can analyze targets from multiple angles, cross-check various targeting data streams, and recommend the best strategy for targeting a particular target.


However, defenders have multiple options with which to defeat drone swarms. In an August 2022 article for Small Wars Journal, Ryan Bridley and Scott Pastor note that such can be defeated by directed-energy weapons, jamming, building underground, and deploying counter-drone swarms.

Bridley and Pastor write that while directed-energy weapons such as microwaves and lasers can quickly eliminate drone swarms, they may be cost-prohibitive to poorer countries, and drone manufacturers can apply protective reflective coatings to defeat lasers. 

They note that signal jamming is a traditional way to combat drone swarms, although that approach may only be effective against low-quality, unsophisticated drones. Also, drones could use inertial guidance to stay on course or home-on-jam capability to attack the jamming source. 

Bridley and Pastor say that while building underground can conceal potential targets from drone swarms, that approach is laborious, expensive, and time-consuming.

They also note that counter-drone swarms could destroy some of the attacking swarm’s drones and overstretch the latter to disrupt its mission and blunt its attack. However, they mention the risk of friendly fire against defending drones and that counter-drone swarms must work with other defensive measures to be effective.