APPG for Future Generations: Drones, Swarming and the Future of Warfare

04 July 2019

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations held an event: Drones, Swarming and the Future of Warfare

Tuesday 11 June, 17:00-18:00

David Hambling, Journalist and Author of ‘Swarm Troopers’ 

Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Programme Director, BASIC


Remarks by David Hambling:

  • Small drones are increasingly cheap, numerous, autonomous, and evolving very rapidly. They have the potential to significantly disrupt how wars are faught.

Drones designed for military purposes:

  • Not many countries can afford large surveillance drones such as REAPER (which cost about $17 million USD), but small drones are evolving very rapidly and are increasingly affordable. 
  • Drones like the Switchblade kamikaze drone can be outfitted with a warhead.  (the USA’s Switchblade drones are small enough to be carried in a backpack, and cost about $70,000 each.)  It is high precision and enables a closeup view of a target, while the warhead is small but very powerful; it can take out a pickup truck or a room in building or a group of people walking.  It can also be commanded to abort its mission and fly away, which is why it is allowed to be used in situations where other less precise weapons might be prohibited.
    • The US military has acquired over 4,000 of them.  At the moment they are used only for high value targets because of their cost.
  • These types of drones are likely to get cheaper. 
    • MITRE used technologies such as 3D printing to build a comparable drone for $2,000.
    • There are a number of other contenders in the marketplace for small kamikaze drones, including US and Israeli companies.
    • Chinese companies are also very active in this space.
    • There are also a number of players from surprising countries; Poland, Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine and Azerbaijan are all producing indigenous kamikaze drones, some of these players are on their second or third generation of drone and many are looking to export their technology even further.

Adoption of civilian drones for purposes of warfare:

  • We have already seen ISIS making use of modified consumer drones to launch attacks.
    • For example, ISIS directed a wave of small drones against a Russian air base in Syria.  The Russians claimed that they shot all of them down but it is possible that some damaged Russian aircraft, in which case these very cheap drones were able to cause harm to extremely expensive planes.
    • ISIS also made significant use of drones during the battle for Mosul.
    • It also uses drones for propaganda purposes, posting videos of its drones bombing vehicles.
  • Armed drones based on commercially available hobby kits have also been used by Houthi groups in the Yemeni civil war.
  • An armed drone was even found in the possession of a Mexican cartel group last year.
  • Drones are very hard to stop, and the technology continues to advance rapidly.


How drones are evolving:

  • Extended range: Normally drones have a relatively short range, but this is increasing. 
    • The Sammad drone has a range of 1,200 km, for example.
    • The use of solar power enables drones to have a much longer range.
  • AI: The development of deep learning neural networks means that there are currently much smarter drones in the prototype stage.  These drones can distinguish between swimmers and sharks, for instance.  They are already much better than a human operator, having 90% reliability versus 20% reliability [MOU1] for a human operator.
  • Swarming: Swarming does not just mean a bunch of separate drones flying together at the same time; they act together in a coordinated fashion.  Which means that one operator could control thousands of drones.
    • Intel has put on drone lightshows that make use of swarms of over 1,000 drones.  The largest swarms of military drones have been displayed by China, which involve 200 drones. 


Potential malicious uses of drones:

  • Prevent aircraft from launching: Drones can interrupt flight operations so that it is impossible to launch aircraft.
  • Dropping grenades on vulnerable targets: Small drones can do significant damage by dropping grenades in the right place. 
    • This has been seen in Ukraine in 2017, where one drone destroyed 70,000 tons of munitions contained in a single munition dump.
    • Drones were recently used to attack an oil facility in Saudi Arabia which caused a small fire.  (Saudi Arabia blamed the attack on an Iran-backed group.)
  • Maximise the systemic impact of an attack: If you use coordinated drones to knock out multiple electricity substations, you can multiply the damage of an attack by causing the electricity grid to overload and causing a prolonged blackout that may be hard to recover from (The APPG on Future Generations considered this scenario in our recent event on infrastructure resilience).
  • Start fires: Traditionally the vast majority of incendiary munitions are wasted.  However, with precise targeting it is possible to ensure that the vast majority of munitions will start fires.
  • Target individuals: Swarms can be used to target individuals.  A 2017 arms control advocacy video called “Slaughterbots” depicted a fictional scenario in which swarming drones are used for the mass targeting of individuals; the video envisioned the use of drones with facial recognition technology to track down and kill individuals.  The technology to do this already exists.
  • Drone swarms will be cheap and readily available strategic weapons.  They will allow precision attacks to be carried out at low cost.  And they are very hard to stop and rapidly becoming more capable.

Remarks by Sebastian Brixey-Williams:

  • The focus of his talk was on naval drones.


  • UUVs (Unmanned Underwater/Undersea Vehicles) and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) have gotten much less attention than their aerial cousins.
  • UUVs and USVs can be used for everything from ocean mapping to deep sea mining to antisubmarine warfare.
  • Improvements in machine learning and battery technology will continue to increase their performance.


  • The US has developed a prototype UUV called SHARK (Submarine Hold at RisK) which shows a lot of promise and is used for submarine hunting
  • Underwater drone swarm technology exists as well. 


  • China is developing an army of tiny drone ships for surface swarming in naval warfare.
  • A promotional video produced by Chinese company Oceanalpha demonstrated the use of 56 of their drones for surface swarming with very precise co-location such as writing Chinese characters on the surface of the ocean.
  • While produced ostensibly for commercial purposes, businesses in China are much closer to the Chinese government than other parts of the world, so this video is widely seen as presenting China’s capacity to produce a ‘shark swarm’ that can be used in sea battles and military patrols.


Strategic implications of naval drones:

  • Naval drones can be used to make it harder for and deter an adversary from approaching their coastlines.
  • There is now militarization of the undersea space.
  • It will be harder for US submarines to enter the South China Sea with confidence that they will be undetected.
  • All manned platforms may be at risk from naval swarming technologies.
  • There is a need for strategic dialogue on the issue of naval drones, notably multistakeholder dialogue between states with the most developed technologies.  They should look at such questions as:
  • What will the scale be like in the next 20 years? 
  • How do these technologies interact with other technologies? 
  • What status do they have in international law?
  • Can we agree to to certain codes of conduct that contribute to greater predictability?
  • Can states agree not to use them to autonomously trail nuclear submarines as a nuclear risk reduction measure?

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