The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) plans to incorporate squadrons of “swarming drones” to help foil enemy air defenses.
Last year, the RAF gave its No. 216 Squadron the mission of testing drone swarm technology.
“With swarming drones and uncrewed combat aircraft, we are on the threshold of a change in air warfare as profound as the advent of the jet age,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the chief of the U.K. air staff, told the Global Air Chiefs Conference in London on July 14. “Our drone test squadron, 216, has proven beyond doubt the disruptive and innovative utility of swarming drones under our Alvina program. Working with our defense science laboratory and specialist industry partners, I can say that we have exercised swarms of over 20 ultra-low cost drones, operating together against threat systems, to brilliant effect. We have been focused on confusing and overwhelming adversary air defenses, but we’re already contemplating new, disruptive missions.”
In January, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said that its Defense Science and Technology Laboratory had tested the capabilities of a swarm of 20 drones of five different types and six payloads. The industry and academic team, led by U.K.-based Blue Bear Systems Research, included Plextek DTS, IQHQ, Airbus and Durham University.
“That success in little over a year points to the operational utility of swarming drones,” Wigston said of the U.K.’s swarming drones experiment. “I aim to declare it operational in an equally short period of time with more than one squadron, such is its impact, and we will spirally develop it year by year, moving swiftly where the technology allows and the threat invites. Our swarming drone squadrons will be part of that mix of piloted, remotely piloted, and autonomous platforms that come together as the Future Combat Air System [FCAS].”
The German/French FCAS and the U.K.’s Tempest next generation fighter programs are likely to feature swarming drones and mixed formations of uncrewed combat aircraft and sixth generation fighters. The U.K. has announced a 2 billion pound investment over four years in Tempest. The U.K. is also forging ahead on a partnership on Tempest with Italy and Sweden.
The U.S. Air Force has investigated the potential of swarming drones in its Golden Vanguard collaborative weapon Vanguard program, but the service recently decided not to transition Golden Vanguard into an acquisition program (Defense Daily, June 4).
“We have many R&D efforts on many types of unmanned systems that are very exciting, and we will certainly go down the road of many of these technologies you’re hearing about as well,” Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation on July 14.