Book Title: Swarm Troopers
Author: David Hambling
Scrolling through the Twitter feeds and Telegram channels of Russian and Ukrainian supporters, one can witness a technological revolution unfolding in real time. Unmanned systems — in air, on the ground and in the maritime domain — have made starry debuts and seem to upend the conventional notions of tactical warfighting that is directly impacting the battlefield. The jury is still out on whether these systems have the capability to effect strategic changes on their own. On the Eurasian battlefield, the drone losses are massive, close to 10,000 a month, as per some reports. One may wonder about the utility of a weapon system or platform with such a colossal loss percentage, as it goes against the grain of a soldier’s instinct of preserving his/her equipment to the best of his/her abilities. But the question asked by David Hambling in ‘Swarm Troopers’ is very different. He questions the utility of drones, a colloquial term used to subsume unmanned systems across the three physical war domains, in comparison with manned platforms. In the process, he sheds light on certain predilections of military bureaucracies and reasons why innovation is hard to master in governmental organisations.
Some analysts have divided the use of drones into ages: the peak of the First Drone Age was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the use of big, wieldy and near-jet size systems like the Predator and the Reaper to initially find, locate and fix high value targets (HVTs) like Al-Qaeda and Taliban members for follow-on attacks by either special forces or ground attacks by US fighter jets. An extended time period between the sensor and the shooter for these extremely mobile targets necessitated the integration of the shooter and sensor within the same platform. Thus were born the UCAVs or the unmanned combat aerial vehicles. One of the reasons for the success of these platforms was the non-existent air defence of the adversaries.
The Second Drone Age is the current one where weaponised drones have proliferated across state and non-state actors. To a large extent, some of the advantages with first movers have been neutralised. Hambling attributes this to a confluence of certain factors such as increased computing resources, miniaturisation, modularity and increasing proliferation of standards. The Third Age Drone, as predicted in the book and which will supposedly take off from the current conflict in Ukraine, features autonomy, artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for swarming and other bio-mimetic features, innovative energy conservation and usage concepts.
However, as one of the book’s main arguments goes, military bureaucracies usually prefer hardware which is generally reliable, proven and well-understood. Since drones are none of these, even if they are absorbed by the armed forces, they will still be in a form that resembles manned aircraft, negating the massive potential for innovation in terms of operations and doctrines. This is why in most of the conflicts, the successful use of drones has been pioneered by actors which are either flatter than hierarchical militaries or smaller states — ISIS, Azerbaijan and Ukraine being contemporary examples.
Coming to the structure and semantics of the book, it is prescient in certain aspects. Hambling correctly foresees that the cost of putting a grenade on a target has become affordable. This has been plainly evident in the Ukrainians’ use of cost-effective drones made out of wood, metal and even Chinese foam — their basic use being one-way kamikaze warriors to target Russian soldiers. The ubiquity of drones such as DJI Mavics, Autels and Shaheds on the battlefield point to the similarity in ruggedness, reliance and efficacy of consumer electronics as compared to the military ones.
The book also warns of the danger of using unmanned systems in the same way as conventional manned aircraft. This defeats the notion of having in your hand an aerial object with multiple potential use cases — aircraft, ammunition, electronic warfare (EW) module, Internet provider, etc — the functionality limited only by the imagination of the user. The use of swarming to provide persistent (weeks or months) overwatch of an area along with the ability to attack specific targets is one of the major advantages that Hambling thinks will preclude the use of boots on ground — one of the major requirements of the western militaries.
The middle chapters of the book, which are basically bullet points on the remarkable pace of development in the field of drones and swarms, are difficult to read for a layman and require a basic understanding of science to grasp concepts like memristors, bio-mimetics, etc. The flow of the book, therefore, suffers from an inconsistent pacing. It starts brilliantly, sags in the middle, and then picks up in the end, when Hambling talks about countering swarms, and the future of drone warfare. Combined with Hambling’s continued reportage on the current conflict, this book provides an important overview of the potential and omnipresence of drones in the future.