Warplanes: Swarmware Goes To War

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November 8, 2020: Swarmware is the software required to make a group (a few to scores) of UAVs move and automatically cooperate with each other to accomplish a mission without a human controller, and even in the presence jamming or electronic countermeasures. For decades there have been multiple efforts to develop true swarmware. The U.S. has come close but Chinese now claim they have done it. To demonstrate their achievement, the Chinese military is purchasing large quantities of CH-901 and WS-43 UAVs equipped to operate as an autonomous AI (Artificial Intelligence) controlled attack swarm. The CH-901 weighs 9 kg (20 pound), 1.2-meters (47 inch) long, carries a 2.5 kg (5.5 pound) payload of sensors and/or explosives and has an endurance of 120 minutes. Top speed of 150 KPH (kilometers per hour).

The WS-43 is similar but larger at 160 kg with a 20 kg warhead, max speed of 300 KPH and endurance of 30 minutes. Both UAVs are propeller driven and battery powered. Both models are launched from a storage tube at which point the wings unfold and the propeller starts. The CH-901 has been seen carried on a 6x6 truck in a box launcher with 48 launch tubes. The WS-43 can also be carried by truck mounted launcher with about twelve launch tubes per truck. These multi-tube launchers can also be carried on ships. Both UAVs have smaller numbers of launch tubes carried by helicopters or fixed wing aircraft.

When used individually, the CH-901 has an operator-controlled range of 15 kilometers while the WS-43 control range is 30-60 kilometers. When operating as a swarm weapon, there is no operator control and the missions can be one way. UAVs in an attack swarm are programmed to share information with each other and, with AI software targeting sensors currently used for various types of anti-vehicle/ship weapons, find and attack individual targets. In this autonomous mode CH-901 has a max range of about 250 kilometers while the WS-43 can cover about half that.

In effect, China claims to have mastered technologies that were known to be possible since the 1980s but so far no one has put it all together to produce the swarming system China claims to have. That means that each multiple launcher full of UAVs has to be equipped to give all its UAV swarming instructions. That would include how far away the target area is and what types of targets (vehicles) to go after. The “vehicles” could include components of a mobile air defense system, artillery vehicles or trucks carrying equipment, aircraft on the ground, supplies, bunkers or troops. China says it has tested its UAVs under control of “swarmware” but gave no details of results except that it was successful.

Since the 1980s the U.S. Department of Defense has been spending more time and effort on developing technology to make it possible for autonomous robots to communicate and cooperate in maintaining the most efficient “swarm” of robotic sensors or weapons. Progress has been slow but successful. By 2016 the navy tested swarms of small submarine detecting surface and underwater vehicles. The air force had already developed swarming systems for UAVs as well as some types of aerial decoys. The army is doing the same with small robotic vehicles used for surveillance and security. After more than half a century of theoretical and practical work, the swarms are about to enter service and China is claiming to be first.

The three U.S. armed services have already developed tactical uses for the swarms. In the 1990s the navy began developing tactics for using swarms of aerial, surface and underwater unmanned vehicles to precede large fleet movements to ensure safe transit of the U.S. warships. The air force already has tactics for using swarms for penetrating complex air defense systems.

You could see this coming. For example, in 2011 an American firm conducted a successful test of UAV swarming software. In practical terms, this is flight control and search software that enables two or more UAVs to organize and carry out the most efficient search of an area, once ordered to do so by an operator who controls all of them. Two Scan Eagle UAVs were used for the test.

The swarming technology also has commercial applications, for any situation in which you want a land or sea area searched quickly and thoroughly using UAVs. But the military is particularly in need of this new tech, as there are often a number of different UAVs in an area, and the swarm tech enables all these UAVs to quickly participate in an automated search where the strengths and limitations of each UAV are taken into account.

In some respects the U.S. Navy and Air Force already have a UAV swarming system in the form of the MALD-N (miniature air-launched decoy). This is a powered disposable decoy that can broadcast signals imitating various radars and do so while networked (thus the N) with other MALD-Ns as well as manned aircraft. This enables all the MALD-Ns in a swarm to automatically share information and quickly make changes to maintain the maximum confusion for enemy radars. There’s a pilot or system operator monitoring all this and able to intervene if needed. The MALD-N is a variant of the older (2012) MALD-J, the first jammer version of MALD.

The original ADM-160B MALD finally passed acceptance tests in 2009 and the air force agreed to buy it. The original MALD is a 115 kg (250 pound) powered decoy with a range of 900 kilometers and speed comparable with the cruise speed of some manned warplanes. MALD appears on the enemy radar as a warplane. MALD itself is a torpedo-shaped object that is about half the size of a Tomahawk cruise missile. MALD operates on the same principle as Tomahawk. When launched short wings pop out and a small jet engine starts. MALD deceives enemy radars with electronics that can generate signals that make MALD appear to be one of several actual warplanes. MALD is preprogrammed to fly a specific route with its electronic radar transmitter programmed to emit signals making the tiny MALD appear like a larger aircraft on the enemy radar.

American and Israeli forces already have several models of tube launched UAVs that can be used for reconnaissance or attack. The American Switchblade 300 is similar to the CH-901 while the more recent Switchblade 600 is similar to the WS-43. Israel also has similar models of loitering munitions. But so far no one but the Chinese claim to have fully autonomous swarmware. Then again the MALD-N software would be, and may already have been, modified to full-autonomous swarmware mode.

 


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