China has successfully tested its drone “swarm” system which makes the threat of swarm technology even more real, especially in an era where China is facing adversaries like the US, India, Japan.
China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), a state-owned company reportedly conducted the test in September and released the video on Tuesday along with the details.
According to Chinese local media reports, the test demonstrated the ability of the whole process such as the rapid deployment of vehicles, intensive launching, hovering and launching in the air, manoeuvring launching, precise formation, formation change, ground inspection and attack, and precision strike.
In the video, the drones are launched from a vehicle similar to the Dongfeng Humvee and a helicopter as well. According to David Hambling of the Forbes, China has long had tactical loitering munitions like the 20-pound CH-901, which cruises over the target area beaming back video for the operator to locate a target, then diving in to destroy it on command.
“The drones are launched with compressed air, then unfold their wings and fly to the target area with an electric-powered propeller. The kamikaze drones carry high-explosive warheads, potentially powerful enough to destroy tanks and other armour,” he stated.
The US is also in the race to develop swarming drone technology. The US Navy has already performed offensive swarm operations with its LOCUST drone swarm developed by Raytheon.
Last year, CETC unveiled a multifunction processing unit for swarm intelligence. According to the CETC, based on swarm intelligence algorithms and dynamic networking protocols, the processing unit features flight control, mission planning, intelligence decision-making and dynamic networking, integrating the flight control system and the measurement and control system of traditional drones.
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While CETC didn’t reveal the name or designation of the drones or the complete system being used in the test, experts believe that the drones look similar to China Poly Defense’s CH-901.
It is also known as “suicide drones” and weighs 9 kilograms. It can be fitted with warheads or camera to perform reconnaissance missions and located enemy positions. The CH-901 can fly at a speed from 7 to 120 km/h with a range of 10 km and, loaded with explosive warhead the drone can penetrate light armoured vehicles.
“In 2018 China displayed a launch vehicle with eight CH-901s, which would be launched one at a time. The difference here is the swarming technology, which means the operator only needs to designate the target,” explained Hambling. The swarming system ensures that all the drones adhere to the same rules to follow cohesion without colliding with each other.
Defence analysts believe that it is very difficult for the adversary to combat with these swarming drones. According to Isaac Kaminer, an engineering professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School – large-scale adversarial swarms are already an imminent threat. He suggested that stopping a swarm is not simply a matter of driving enough missiles or bullets at it; instead, the swarm has to be outsmarted.
Hambling also acknowledged the difficulty to counter such drones. He wrote that jammers may not be enough if the drones do not have a direct link to the operator and which may navigate by landmarks and do not rely on GPS. Missile and cannons could be too slow to shoot the swarm down. He concluded saying that US’ ‘counter swarm’ may be the only way to fight swarm drones.