It’s no secret how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have so far assumed the role of the most valuable player in modern warfare, as demonstrated in the nearly nine-month-long war between Russia and Ukraine. While the United States remains superior in possessing the best and most sophisticated UAVs ever, China has undeniably caught up in developing state-of-the-art drone technologies.
A week before its much-awaited air show, China, through its state-owned media, teased some of its new military technology—including its drone swarm launcher, reportedly capable of firing at least 18 drones simultaneously. But this isn’t the first time Beijing showcased this truck-mounted launcher concept, as it demonstrated the technology back in 2020.
Manufactured by China Ordnance Equipment Group (COEG), the latest “drone blaster” will be partaking for the first time at the 2022 Zhuhai Air Show, which begins on November 8. In its teaser, the latest swarm launcher is undoubtedly reminiscent of the previous system demonstrated in 2020, capable of firing multiple drones at once even if its transport platform is in motion. Once released and up in the air, these drones can be set into different formations—and conduct Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and attack missions on ground targets.
Unlike the previous system, however, the latest loitering drone swarm launcher is smaller, cheaper, and more mobile in addition to its primary function feature, which focuses more on “information-gathering and attack variants,” as reported by Eurasian Times. Moreover, the system would be used for ISR missions and on “area control, damage assestment, precision strike, and cluster strike saturating attacks.”
The state-owned media, CCTV, added that the drones equipped with the latest launcher would be ideal for “attacking ground troops, light armored vehicles, simple fortifications, and other high-value targets such as radar sites” and communication satellites when modified into kamikaze drones.
The idea of a drone swarm has been around for quite some time now, with the object of overwhelming adversaries by firing multiple drones at once and at regular intervals. Unprepared and unequipped troops unable to counter and defend from these types of simultaneous attacks can easily get overwhelmed and attacked at all sides, as well as prone to information and intelligence leaks.
While CCTV reported that its ground-based platform could adapt to any terrain, there needed to be more evidence or in-depth details about the vehicle’s specifications that could further prove its capabilities.
In another report by CCTV last month, it said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force planned to use both manned and unmanned equipment to boost its swarming capabilities. Accordingly, it will utilize its H-6K Bomber as a platform to launch four LJ-1 drones for aerial targets. Meanwhile, some experts speculate that Beijing intends to team up its stealth J-20 fighter jets with unmanned drones.
The H-6K bomber is a variant of the Xian H-6 twin-engine jet bomber developed in the late 1950s for the PLA Air Force. Introduced during China’s 60th anniversary, the H-6K aircraft is identified as a strategic bomber capable of long-range and stand-off attacks in addition to its nuclear strike capabilities. On the other hand, the LJ-1 drone is best known as one of China’s loyal UAV wingmen. It is a high subsonic unmanned drone with high mobility, long endurance, stealth, and recoverability (recovery parachute and airbag), and is capable of simulating maneuverability and supports different payloads such as active self-defense jamming equipment, infrared jamming decoy dispensing device, and infrared target simulator, among many others.
The United States has been working on the development of its offensive drone swarm capabilities. The US Army, in particular, demonstrated in September the coordinated quadcopter swarm drones in a training exercise held in Fort Irwin, California. The National Training Control has also recognized the vital role of drones on the battlefield. During the simulation, the quadcopters were rigged with bombs which would then be dropped into ground vehicles like tanks and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees), resulting in an accurate and highly lethal attack. Not to mention the quiet and low-flying capabilities of quadcopters, making them harder to detect by conventional radar systems. Last year, the US Army also kickstarted the development of a high-power microwave capability to counter and destroy small UAV drone threats—always moving three steps ahead of its adversaries in the unmanned munition game.
The US Navy has also shown interest in acquiring its own swarm, small drones intended to overwhelm defenses with a simultaneous attack. According to MIT Technology Review, the service branch is “working on ways to build, deploy, and control thousands of small drones that are able to flock together to overwhelm anti-aircraft defenses with sheer numbers.”
The budget document came months after the conflict in Ukraine happened, as it has proven how valuable small drones have become in modern warfare in terms of executing ISR missions, guiding artillery attacks, and accurately bombarding enemy tanks. However, one of the challenges in operating UAVs was operator limitation, which the USN wished to address by having a sophisticated single control system over hundreds, if not thousands, of drones.
While the project is still in the works, the “Super Swarm” development would become another game changer on the battlefield and a definite edge for the US over its superpower counterparts.