The Chinese Swarming Programme – Part Three of Three

The Chinese Swarming Programme – Part Three of Three

The People Liberation Army has recognised the potential of swarm technology to disrupt the current order; the low cost of swarming technology means that it could be used for saturation assaults on a high-value target by simply overwhelming the current defensive systems.”

By Caitlin Irvine

When discussing the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) developments in swarm technology it is first important to lay out their strategy. The PLA has recognised the potential of swarm technology to disrupt the current order; the low cost of swarming technology means that it could be used for saturation assaults on a high-value target by simply overwhelming the current defensive systems [1]. The Chinese military, therefore, intends to use this technological advancement as a force multiplier. According to the PLA, unmanned weapons systems are central to future operations in all domains of warfare [2]. Political commentators have speculated that swarming technology could be deployed by China in contentious areas such as the South China Sea [3]. The unmanned nature leaves the party coming into contact with the swarm having to decide whether or not a flyover is an act of aggression, simply reconnaissance, or human error. The secrecy surrounding Chinese military operations resulted in only two clear examples of swarming being discovered; the demonstration at Guangzhou Air Show in 2017 and a simulated reconnaissance mission.

The simulated reconnaissance mission tested an entire group of drones – incorporated with swarming technology – carrying out a variety of missions [4]. Unspecified portions of the flight were performed autonomously whilst still acting as a swarm. Feng and Clover highlight that Beijing therefore thinks ‘swarms of drones will become a weapon of the future’ [5]. It is clear that this technology – and autonomous weapons systems more generally – are an area of debate with severe implications for future warfare.

The PLA aims to harness ‘military-civil fusion to enable future military applications’ by integrating military and civilian developments [6]. A success in the civilian arena rapidly transfers over to the military dimension [7]. In 2017, at the Guangzhou Air Show, a swarm of 1,108 quadcopters displayed the results of Chinese civil-military cooperation [8]. Not only did these drones illustrate synchronised flight but they also showed ‘independent thought’ [9]. During the performance at least three drones fell out of the swarm for an unpublished technical reason. However, when they failed to complete their delegated tasks each drone executed their  individual landings. Drone swarms have previously been compared to an American football team – the swarm runs set plays and the operator oversees the network [10]. But in this demonstration the drones have also shown independent self-repair capabilities; the communication connection from the drones to the hive-like mind was re-established during flight [11]. This self-repairing function therefore demonstrates the potential for these systems to have decision-making capabilities outside of the operator’s direct control. This is a developing technology, still in the early stages, but the PLA is committed to investing in drone swarms for the long-term future.

Drone swarms represent a disruption in the strategic status quo of warfare. In this three-part mini-series, three main points about the consequences of swarming technology have been made. The low entry cost relative to conventional munitions could make these systems commonplace. As a weapon, drone swarms place the onus of differentiation on those being attacked. The advantages for unconventional theatres, such as urban terrain, make these systems attractive to militaries around the world. In both the American and Chinese examples, investment in swarming technology has been seen from both civil and military entities. Within the narrative surrounding drone swarms, it appears that the main use of such systems will be reconnaissance. But, it is their ability to also host attack capabilities is what makes them particularly terrifying. It appears that drone swarms have less political opposition in comparison to Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, or ‘Killer Robots’ as they are more popularly known, yet mark a clear point in the path towards such autonomous technologies [12].

 

References:

[1] Kania, E (2017) ‘Swarms at war: Chinese advances in Swarm Intelligence’, The Jamestown Foundation: China Brief, Vol 17, Issue 9, p 13

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Wise, D (2017) ‘Chinese Drone Swarms Could Overwhelm US at Sea’, The Cipher Brief [online] available at: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/chinese-drone-swarms-overwhelm-u-s-sea accessed on 16th April 2017

[4] Trevthick, J (2018) ‘China Is Hard At Work Developing Swarms Of Small Drones With Big Military Applications’, The Warzone [online] available at: http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/17698/chinas-is-hard-at-work-developing-swarms-of-small-drones-on-multiple-levels accessed on 19th April 2018 

[5] Feng, E and Clover, C (2017) ‘Drone swarms vs conventional arms: China’s military debate’, The Financial Times [online] available at: https://www.ft.com/content/302fc14a-66ef-11e7-8526-7b38dcaef614 accessed on 16th April 2017 

[6] Kania, E (2017) ‘Swarms at war: Chinese advances in Swarm Intelligence’, The Jamestown Foundation: China Brief, Vol 17, Issue 9, p15

[7] Laskai, L (2018) ‘Civil-Military Fusion and the PLA’s Pursuit of Dominance in Emerging Technologies’ [online], The Jamestown Foundation: The China Brief, Vol 18, Issue 6,  availible at: https://jamestown.org/program/civil-military-fusion-and-the-plas-pursuit-of-dominance-in-emerging-technologies/

[8] Romaniuk, SN and Burgers, T (2018) ‘China’s Swarms of Smart Drones Have Enormous Military Potential’, The Diplomat [online] available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/chinas-swarms-of-smart-drones-have-enormous-military-potential/ Accessed on 16th April 2018

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Department of Defence (2017) ‘Department of  Defence Announces Successful Micro-Drone Demonstration’, Department of Defence, Press release number NR-008-17, 9th January [online] available at: https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1044811/department-of-defense-announces-successful-micro-drone-demonstration/ accessed on 19th April 2018  

[11] Romaniuk, SN and Burgers, T (2018) ‘China’s Swarms of Smart Drones Have Enormous Military Potential’, The Diplomat [online] available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/chinas-swarms-of-smart-drones-have-enormous-military-potential/ Accessed on 16th April 2018

[12] Docherty, B (2012) ‘Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots’, Human Rights Watch Report

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