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JULY 2020

A Swarm of Swarms: Toward Aerospace Warfare Model of the 21st Century

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A Swarm of Swarms: Toward Aerospace Warfare Model of the 21st Century

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While the phrase “system of systems” has entered relatively common usage some years ago as a reflection of the need to field systems and assets with complementary capabilities that will operate as part of a synergistic whole in their respective domain of warfare, in the realm of aerospace combat the United States is moving in the direction of the “swarm” as the key organizing principle of its combat paradigm. The US Air Force Future Operating Concept which attempts to envision USAF operations in the year 2035 places “interconnectedness” high on the list of buzzwords, and promotes such goals as “Global Integrated Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance” and “Global Precision Strike”, all being controlled from “Multi-Domain Operations Centers” whose ability to manage a wide variety of interconnected systems and assets would guarantee getting inside the adversary’s “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” (OODA) Loop, a long-standing Holy Grail among US airmen ever since USAF Colonel John Boyd formulated the concept as a result of his Korean War experiences.

Advances in communications, sensors, and artificial intelligence have meant that munitions have progressed greatly beyond being little more than bullets, launched at a specific target and then guided to it by either its on-board sensors perceiving some aspect of the electromagnetic spectrum emanated by the target, or by an autopilot navigating it and its lethal payload to its destination.

The swarm approach apparently became attractive to the US military following the cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria, during which the slow-moving trickle of subsonic, non-maneuverable, but very expensive Tomahawk SLCMs was combed out of the sky by a variety of modern air defense systems. Evidently even the current sophisticated Tomahawk mission planning software is incapable of delivering the “time on target” response necessary to overcome local air defenses. On the other hand, an AI-enhanced swarm of smaller, cheaper munitions might succeed where the by now dated Tomahawk had failed.

In response, the US military had embraced the “swarm” idea with a vengeance, hoping that interconnectedness and AI will deliver the sort of technological overmatch of any and all adversaries that currently does not exist.

Tac Air component

US Air Force and the US Navy have been enormously resistant to the idea of heavy unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for much of the last decade. Many earlier experiments involving flying wing-style UCAVs such as the X-47 have failed to result in a deployed combat system. This hesitancy was driven by two factors. The first was the “fighter mafia” that rules the USAF and the naval aviation component of the USN, which is jealously guarding its elite status and which is not interested in “fighter jocks” being displaced by a bunch of kids with video game consoles controlling UCAVs. The second was the belief that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would live up to Lockheed-Martin propaganda and be that technological “silver bullet” in both air-to-air and air-to-ground applications, thanks to its stealth, advanced sensors, and the ability to share tactical information in real time. In actuality, however, the incredibly protracted F-35 development allowed for countermeasures to be developed, and secondly the fighter itself was found to have enough shortcomings to practically relegate it to a “niche” weapon system, a sort of second-generation F-117, rather than a workhorse to replace the vast fleet of F-16 fighters in US and allied use.

With the F-35’s flaws now in plain view, the UCAV has been given a second lease on life as a means of rescuing the most expensive combat aircraft program in history from failure. Remarkably enough, the first air force to recognize these problems was Australia’s, which launched the “loyal wingman” project for which Boeing, a competitor to Lockheed Martin, is already building prototypes. The US equivalent is the considerably more ambitious Skyborg which is still in the conceptual stage, but which also is pursuing the same aim that is close to being achieved in Russia with the Su-57—Okhotnik UCAV combination. While the information about Skyborg is still scarce, once operational it will be procured in large numbers to ensure each F-35 could take at least one into combat by its side.

USAF’s swarm principle is unlikely to stop there, and will also extend into munitions. The service awarded several contracts in the past couple of years to further the development of stand-off munitions that would be cheaper, longer-ranged, equipped with sensors, and interlinked, in order to facilitate their cooperation while in flight.

Space Component

The US “space swarm” so far is the least developed of the three, but its rudiments are already visible. The SpaceX Starlink constellation of small satellites that was advertised as a means of providing the entire world with access to wireless internet has also been revealed to have direct military applications. The US Air Force has acknowledged it will rely on it for broadband access for its combat aircraft. Moreover, if combined with powerful enough signal processing capabilities, Starlink offers the prospect of a global aircraft detection system, possibly even capable of tracking large moving objects on the surface of the planet, such as aircraft carriers. It’s difficult to imagine USAF and USSF would forgot attempting to develop a technology which was demonstrated for the first time with the downing of the F-117 over Serbia in 1999.

Given the US military’s interest in reusable space-launch vehicles and developing the ability to surge launches whenever needed, it’s doubtful the Starlink will remain the only US application of the swarm concept in space. Sooner or later they will be supplemented by combat vehicles, likely based on the X-37 unmanned and reusable space shuttle that has logged an impressive number of hours in space, and whose payloads and activities remain a closely guarded secret. The recent tests of an anti-drone combat laser aboard a US warship suggest that such a weapon could eventually be deployed aboard X-37-derived combat spacecraft. While the small size of the X-37 means accommodating necessary power supplies to make the lasers effective would be a daunting task indeed, the absence of an atmosphere in low Earth orbit and the fragility of most satellites mean that a space-borne laser would be a more effective anti-satellite than anti-missile weapon.

Flies in the Ointment

The dream of interconnected aerospace swarms extending from the Earth’s surface into low Earth orbit and beyond will encounter major obstacles along the way, to the point that perhaps it will remain yet another US utopian technological project aiming at obtaining permanent military supremacy.

The first is the existence of the US Space Force, which will fight tooth and nail for organizational turf and control over space-capable assets. Ironically, the establishment of the USSF may undermine the drive toward integrated aerospace operations the same way as the creation of the US Air Force as an independent service led to the promotion of the idea of airpower winning wars entirely on its own, without collaboration with other services. While strategic airpower was a favorite among the US Army Air Corps leadership in part because, in the absence of a large land theater of operations against Germany, the bombers were the only means of bringing the war to Germany, the subordination to the Army meant tactical air could not be ignored. Once that independence from the Army was won, time and again tactical air support capabilities had to be engineered into various combat aircraft only after they became operational. One still remembers “not a pound for air to ground” that accompanied the creation of the F-15 Eagle.

By the same token, the creation of the USSF means the existence of an organization about as interested in watching USAF develop its space capabilities, which it seems very interested in doing, as USAF is in the US Army having its own fixed-wing combat aircraft. And just as USAF prioritized air superiority and strategic warfare over tactical air support, so is the USSF liable to lose sight of the fact the most important aspect of its mission is the support of combat operations in the atmosphere and on the Earth’s surface.

The sheer complexity of the goal of building a global swarm of swarms that links all the aerial and space platforms and munitions will also be a major challenge. It should be noted that many of the problems of the F-35 are actually software-based, for example the failed ALIS centralized maintenance monitoring system which USAF finally gave up on and decided to commission an entirely different system. Since US software development do not appear to be on a part with US military’s ambitions, there is no guarantee the US military will be able to achieve its end objective.

Conclusion

This is not the first time the US military has bet on a technological advance to provide a “game changer” that would give it an irresistible advantage. The Norden bombsight, the nuclear weapon, guided munitions, were all supposed to deliver a similar objective. None of them really delivered what they promised because other powers responded in kind, and the technological capabilities themselves fell short of what was advertised.

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  • JIMI JAMES

    Back then one could migrate from mirage to boeing vica versa with minimum of fuss,nowadays even to assume such concepts were built flawlessly,there are far too many variables and other complexes even the manufacture can yet to master,so then how is a nation supposed to migrate to the current if these just about no one near keen enough to study books that are tenfold more complex to read let alone understand,but I guess any low iq very arrogant cia/salesman can be hired to sell out the bullsht,no?

    Pure and simple logistics severely lacketfs proper salarys to justify any standard of living in freedom,
    as if the debts and bills etc nowadays are not tenfold worse off,than yesteryears,point missed C.I.A!

    • Jens Holm

      ost of that is highly incorrect. Nato from the start has had so many problems Russians didnt have, because Rusians had ssame standards for all thing.

      A very simple one dould be different openings for fuel to airplanes. Another one could be calibers in cm or something else. A pound in fuel still is not the same all over.

  • Dick Von Dast’Ard

    I suspect that by years end U.S. debt to GDP will be circa 125% – 150%, mass unemployment and a shrinking economy, yet they still have the mindset that they want to control the world.

    When the looting starts, the shooting starts!

    • Jens Holm

      So what about the rest of the world ???

      • Dick Von Dast’Ard

        Don’t see America’s close peer adversaries being quite as badly damaged as America, once all the dust settles.

        • occupybacon

          Some said the same thing during 2008-2009 crisis

          • Dick Von Dast’Ard

            And ever since the USA has been in drastic decline.

          • occupybacon

            Since Marx, right?

          • Jens Holm

            Thats right. They should have used Groucho and Harpoin staed and many more would be happy.

          • Jens Holm

            Nothing wrong in declining. Many parts of the world should move their behinds back and make quality growth.

            I see good reasons for Denamrk should go back 10 years in living standars and then remove or replace bad things including wate to the sky, land and sea.

            My problem is the ones, which dont have a level, where they can decline from.

        • Jens Holm

          This is not about America but Finland, Estonia, Lituania, Latvia, Poland, Thekkoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, roumaniam Ukrainia and even more then that,

          The same goes for the possesions Russia and Sovjet stole from the locals in Asia.

          USA were asked into Europe in WW1 as well as WW2. In WW2 USSR gave the Nazis anything they needed to invade France, hoilland, belgium, luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Balkans and even North Africa.

          Without You they never was able to. It was very strange to see Danish communist supporting Hitler in Denmark until Barbarosso.

          • Aaron Aarons

            Who asked the US into Europe in WW1? Wasn’t it mainly Western bankers who stood to lose quite a lot if Germany won the war, or forced an armistice that was not a capitulation to the British, French, and Belgian (inter alia) imperialists.

          • Jens Holm

            So Germany and Austria-Hungaria sunk USA vessels and traffic to USA to support banks???????

            Why dont You read about it???? USA – just as for WW2 did EVERYTHING to remain neutral with no war in their Monroe Dictrin area.

            When USA in 1938 only had an army of 400.000 including their National Guard and went to 1 million – the worries were Japan and nothing about Europe as well as Communists.

            You represent the typical mismanegements of things going on. You totally close Your eyes or someoe else do for well descriebef things You can read about in 100s of semilar versions making – as usual – banks as sinners.

            Here You of course also ignore, that banks often are owned by stockholders,which You by Your ideology is against too.

            Its too easy and cheep. The reason for WW1 is very well descriebed. It started by the Preussian expansion taking terrain and influence from France, Austria-Hungaria otther Germans and also Denmark.

            By that Gerrmany was non influence fro Austra Hungaria and they therefore only could expand at the Balkans(1878) against Serbians and mainly Osmans.

            So it was about economic expansion, where Preussen also would like to be an Empire. That of course is about making money by economic devellopments.

            Here You – of course – totally ignore that banks in Germany, Russia and Russia were very big loosers too.

            You probatly lives in one of the well known non devellopment zones and prefare we are low in livingstandard as well as free speach as You. But we dont.

            I am a small bankowner myself by my pensionfund and You dare to blame small middleclasssers like me for things, which are not there.

            The things which is not there are created by Muhammed and Engels economics. We are not like that and never will be. We take Our chances and risks by Our very good systems. They work even it has its up and downs.

            And we do try to keep banks and others in line but blaming them makes no sense. They also makes a lot of good things, which is very visible in my life looking out my windows too.

        • Jens Holm

          It might look look like as You write, but I think mst parts is a Trump thing. I allow me to add seize in it too. USA represent 330 mio people. so Yo as wellfare has to use pr capota just like GDP and even lrvrlæ the local value for the dollar.

          I am very worried for at lot of countries and people livig there, but I do try to compare.

      • Tommy Jensen

        Europe is being militarized at this very moment. I guess US wants Europe to do what US lost the appetite to do.

        • Jens Holm

          Europe is not being militarized in this moments at all.

          I see the dirt here every day like F16s are woth nothing, Leopards are dinosaurs, the Russian missiles are much better.

          Thats partly right, so we replace old stuff with new and more advanced stuff.

          Its only true there has been changes and USSR never should have been all the way to Berlin even with an armed wall made by some blindfolkded ones like You, so people could nbot defelct or get tools to remove the Marx and Engels pretenders to where,m they belonged and belongs.

          Now Europe is oine again. And if Russians behave like Mongolds, they should go there and stay.

          Of course our armed forces are moved forward some to protect that. Russia didnt learn from WW1 and after WW2 made Eastern Europe into a no devellopment zone plundering it as well in the name of COMECON.

          There is nothing strange in those Eastern Europeans prefare to connect to something else then the collapsed USSR using its filthy wings as threat with hardly nothing anyone in Eatstern Europe wish for.

          Its their own choise even You as armed children tell them by threats its not.

          We dont want that happens again. GET IT. Not all of that is what Russia wants. GET IT. We are not connected to them as You prefare with a new trench with landmines west of Ukraine or eat of the Baltics.

          • Tommy Jensen

            I saw Russia trying to renew itself and trying hard to interrelate in a friendly way with West during 15 years.

            Russia understand the hard feelings in E-Europe and had patience until people understand the Sovjet is gone.

            But the ape with the hand granat and the atrocities in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Chechnya, and further Syria went on and on, until most Russians one day understood West is only interested in their death and resources.

            Obama and Nato were very close to an all out war into Russia when Putin demonstrated their hypersonic Kalibr missile. Since then West went into hysteria mode.
            You and many Western people live in the past. East are now the high modern future.

  • Lone Ranger

    They have to fly in swarms if they launch a 100 Flop-35s and drones at least 2-3 should get close enough without choking the pilot to death or falling out of the sky because of a software or sensor issue…

  • Tommy Jensen

    Exactly what I have been saying again and again.

    America is shaping the future of military air-born operations with our “Force by Quantity” swarm technique making all other weapon systems obsolete……………………….LOL.

    Tens of thousands of cheap interconnected heavy loaded AI drones are swarming in over Russia, China whoever it is.
    With their load of Fire-bombs, phosphor-bombs, Agent Orange bombs, cluster-bombs, superduper-bombs nobody can do a shit about it other than bow to an American……………………….LOL.

    • jade villaceran

      your laughing at your own delusional comment :)

      • Tommy Jensen

        People dont have humour anymore.
        I even have to thumb myself up as no one has the single braincell to realize how genius I am.

        • Jens Holm

          Be carefull about making toomuch food, if You have to eat it too.

    • Jens Holm

      The world is like that now and things like that will be devellped whatever we wish or want for it or not.

      The good thing is we can reduce the population growth by that – and should.

      • Tommy Jensen

        Why should we reduce the population growth by bombs silly boy? We should love some more instead.

        • Jens Holm

          Weapons will kill weapons. The winners are the ones still having fx those swirms in the air:)

          Soon many cpuntries has to sleep and even buried verical and enemies with their feet up. I dont like that. Its much better less people are needed.

    • Ronald

      I like the Agent Orange bomb, but what happened to the Big Orange Bomb.
      Or is that the American everyone bows to or shit bombs.

      • Tommy Jensen

        Donknow. Havent seen MOAB since. The super duper bomb is a secret until further.

  • kenpachi

    autofollow macro