Electronic Weapons: Swarming For Targets


August 4, 2021: Israel recently confirmed that it had used swarms of military-grade quadcopters equipped with encrypted communications and a guidance system that enables a swarm (dozens or more quadcopters) to be controlled by one human operator. This allows one person to easily direct the swarm to move to a large area and use night-vision vidcams to scrutinize a large area for certain types of activity.

Gaza was an ideal place to use a quadcopter swarm because it is small; 41 kilometers long and for most of that length it is about ten kilometers wide. The largest urban area (Gaza City) is in the north and contains nearly a third of the Gaza population. There are plenty of back yards and alleys to conceal launching sites for rockets stored underground next to or under launch sites.

During the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza the fighting lasted 50 days because Israel had no way to find all the rocket launch sites without sending in ground troops. That was done and it took time and meant more Israeli casualties. That led to development of aerial surveillance systems that could quickly detect these launch sites and quickly direct artillery, missile or guided bombs to destroy the target.

Israel has not provided a lot of details on what quadcopter was used or details of the software that controls the swarms. However, there are the usual suspects. Israel and several other nations have been working, since the 1980s, on how to make swarm tech work. There is plenty of open-source data on the progress of these efforts. For example, several nations have working swarm software, but none of them have used it in combat yet. Now Israel has, which is normal in this part of the world because in this part of the world the welcoming committee comes heavily armed with hostility and patience. After 70 years of failed attacks there aren’t many enemies left, mainly Islamic terrorists, Iran and corrupt Palestinian leaders obsessed with staying in power by trying to destroy Israel.

Swarm software has benefitted by major advances in collision avoidance for aerial vehicles of all sizes, including quad-copters. Most quad-copters have collision avoidance software which millions of users know works quite well. Swarm software is still largely for military use although commercial developers are creating versions for civilian use. Encrypted communications between aircraft and people on the ground have been around for years.

Swarms of quadcopters self-navigating (like a flock of birds or school of fish) swarms has not only become a real possibility but Israeli showed off their success in this area during the 2018 Independence Day celebration when there was a spectacular light show put on using hundreds of quadcopters operating in unison (a swarm) over Jerusalem. This was impressive and military experts viewing it realized that this could revolutionize aerial surveillance of large areas.

Israel also had a special operations unit, the Ghost Company, quietly testing the use of quadcopter swarms in combat situations. This was kept secret since these swarms can be defeated or their usefulness reduced if an enemy knows they exist. Israel has long had special military equipment development and test units that got new tech to test. This stuff usually involves new electronics and guidance systems for weapons. Special test units got the new gear ready for combat and kept it all secret until, and often after, the new equipment was used. Israel went public with some details of their swarm capability because a lot of experts in the field had figured out it existed and that the Thor military grade UAV was probably a major part of it.

Israel did not reveal the model of quadcopter used but it was probably the Elbit Thor, which is a military-grade quadcopter introduced in 2017. Thor is more rugged than comparable commercial models and has secure (difficult to jam or eavesdrop on) communications. Thor has an endurance of 75 minutes and operates as high as 650 meters (2,000 feet). The comm-link is capable of operating in built-up areas where normal line-of-sight communications do less well. Operational range is ten kilometers and cruise (economical) speed 40 kilometers an hour while top speed (which drains the battery faster) is 65 kilometers an hour. Payload is three kg (6.6 pounds) and standard equipment is a day/night high resolution vidcam. Thor costs over $50,000 each depending on accessories. The Israel military had at least a few hundred Thors at the time of the May 2021 war with Hamas in Gaza. That conflict was over in ten days largely because rocket launching and storage sites were detected and fired on much more quickly than ever before. This was made possible with the use of quadcopter swarms being sent to urban areas at night, where they could scrutinize a neighborhood where older surveillance methods had detected lots of rockets being launched but not the exact location of these targets. Exact location was important because Hamas, and most Islamic terrorists, deliberately places launch sites and their nearby underground rocket storage facilities in residential areas. To minimize civilian casualties, you have to use a weapon with precision guidance, which Israel has a lot of, that can hit launch sites and destroy underground rocket storage as well. The Thor swarms were able to do this. Because of the short (70 minutes) flight time of the Thor UAV smaller swarms of a few dozen quadcopters were used in shifts to provide long enough surveillance to detect where the rockets were coming out of the underground bunkers and being set up for firing.

Thor is very quiet and at night virtually undetectable without special sensors. The quadcopters in the swarm avoided collisions, even when it was windy, by constantly communicating with each other to coordinate safe swarm movement and location of each quadcopter in it. Each Thor was also equipped with a “return to launch site” feature if communications was lost with the swarm operator, for any reason. This could be electronic jamming or just equipment problems on the quadcopter. Thor has automatic takeoff and landing software, as do many commercial quadcopters. The difference is that Thor can do so as a swarm where one human operator tells the swarm where to go and look and for how long. Israel had earlier announced a new fire control system that can quickly accept target data from many sources and immediately determine which system (ground or airborne) is capable of and available to fire on the target. The fire control system can also assign target priorities and that’s what swarm targets got, meaning launch sites and storage bunkers were found and destroyed with a rapidity Hamas was not prepared for. Israel had a decade of experience using software that can analyze digital video and identify what is there.

After a few days they knew they were defeated and after a week were pleading with Egypt to find out what Israeli ceasefire terms were out and quickly broker a halt to the Israeli attacks. The Egyptians, without knowing about the swarm tech, had warned Hamas not to attack Israel again and used that to get Hamas to agree to whatever terms Israel offered.

Israel admitted that it is adapting this system for use against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Currently many of the Hezbollah underground storage sites and above ground rocket launch sites are built within ten kilometers of the Israeli border. At the very least, moving all those bunkers farther from the border will be expensive, more expensive than Hezbollah can afford right now because the revived, in 2017, American economic sanctions on Iran translated into a 50 percent cut in the money Iran sent to pay its thousands of armed members and build new facilities.

It's not enough to have new tech, you have to be able to continually update it in wartime because the enemy, in this case Iran, is able to quickly develop countermeasures. Doing so has become a matter of life and death for the religious dictatorship that has misruled Iran since the 1980s. The average Iranian is fed up with their religious dictatorship and increasingly pro-Israel. The Iranian government has suffered a long string of defeats because of superior Israeli tech and tactics and getting a few wins is a matter of survival for the Iranian rulers.


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