When the Defense Department unveils its budget for 2017 on Tuesday, expect a buzzing noise in the background. Unmanned drone swarms appear to be one of the big winners in Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s plans for the future.
The Pentagon chief tipped his hand that drone swarms could get a funding boost in a speech last week, predicting they could be used in “all sorts of ways and in multiple ways.” Organizations like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research have been investigating the possibility for years, and Carter said that another Pentagon organization, the Strategic Capabilities Office, also is involved. That’s a hint: It focuses on commercial equipment that could be adopted for use by the U.S. military quickly.
One project calls for the use of “micro-drones” that are tough enough to be “kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9” Carter said in a Feb. 2 speech at the Economic Club of Washington. That was already done in Alaska last year during an operational exercise, he added. DARPA also has started a Gremlins program to investigate how to “project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air.” They would be launched in groups from bombers, fighter jets or transport aircraft like the C-130, and then retrieved by a C-130, DARPA officials said in a news release in August.
Carter also alluded to a project in which unmanned boats work together.
“For the water, they’ve developed self-driving boats which can network together to do all kinds of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance, without putting sailors at risk,” Carter said. He mentioned that the Navy has adopted technology initially used by NASA to pilot the Mars rover to control unmanned boats. The vessels would protect U.S. ships from attacks like the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, when terrorists drove a small boat loaded with explosives into the ship, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
The secretary also highlighted what he called “the arsenal plane,” which will take an existing plane and turn it “into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads,” Carter said. DARPA has been investigating how to turn existing planes into “aircraft carriers in the sky,” as DARPA project manager Dan Patt put it in 2014.
Carter didn’t provide much in the way of specifics, but his comments underscore a continued effort in the Pentagon to develop unmanned systems in new ways.
“Swarms will allow the U.S. military to disperse combat power, complicating an enemy’s targeting and overwhelming the enemy through mass,” said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in an analysis released to the media Monday. “These and other new operating concepts are key elements of a continuous process of innovation to adapt to a changing battlespace.”