The Navy and Marine Corps Need to Prepare for the Swarm of the Future


One only needs to look at the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic games to see how modern drone technology could soon render today’s Marine Corps warfighting platforms and doctrine obsolete. During the ceremony, Intel Corp used over 1,200 specially designed drones to light up the night sky in a never-before-seen swarm that danced and maneuvered in formations that included a giant moving snowboarder, an enormous flying dove, and the iconic Olympic rings.

With such a graphic display of sophistication, it is not difficult to imagine the damage that could be inflicted against an adversary’s force if each of those 1,200 drones had been weaponized and configured to seek and destroy enemy formations. Commercially available, high-performance, small unmanned aerial systems can be easily modified to carry a variety of lethal payloads, identify targets at long ranges and carry out a wide range of attacks. The exponential advance of technology and the emergence of low-cost manufacturing has enabled state and non-state actors to develop both fixed and rotary wing small unmanned systems. These are effective counters to U.S. capabilities, which tend to rely on exquisite, expensive platforms. While the current force is still useful in the short term, senior Navy and Marine Corps leaders must strike a balance between continuing to pursue traditional capability sets and developing innovative solutions to defeat future threats.

Understanding the Challenge

Just as the massed formations of soldiers during World War I presented an ideal target for the newly invented machine gun, existing and programmed land, sea, and air platforms are optimized targets for the game-changing weapon of the future: swarms enabled by artificial intelligence. Current Marine Corps warfighting platforms consolidate firepower, communication, and manpower in a single target that can be easily destroyed by inexpensive, easy-to-produce ground, air, or subsurface drones. Like a swarm of bees, a colony of fire ants, or a school of piranha, swarm technology overwhelms conventional defenses designed to defeat linear attacks from incoming rockets, missiles, or torpedoes. Destroying multimillion-dollar vehicles or aircraft with a few $1,000 drones is a cost equation any adversary would want. The recent successful swarm attacks against a Russian airfield in Syria and the United Arab Emirates’ Patriot air defense system in Yemen serve as a clear warning: The threat is already here. Those attacks, however, employed approximately a dozen drones, which hardly qualifies as a swarm. As technology develops and proliferates, swarms of hundreds, if not thousands, are a realistic expectation.

The advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning combined with additive manufacturing will represent a quantum leap in the character of future conflicts. Autonomous swarms can function off image recognition and electromagnetic or acoustic signatures and do not require an operator’s instructions once launched. Blast or fragmenting defenses against multi-engine swarming drones may prove moderately effective, but will be difficult to employ. If a swarm attacks an enemy position from every direction, defensive weapons must also fire in every direction and any friendly personnel or non-combatants inside the effective range of those defensive weapons would also likely be hit. Directed energy or microwave defenses show potential as defenses against swarm attacks, but suffer from the same problem regarding friendly and non-combatants. Directed energy defenses also must contend with the significant power requirements against hardened drones and the time required to track each target. Difficulties in defeating swarms can be compounded by “smart swarms,” which synchronize their arrival on target in numbers guaranteed to overwhelm any friendly platform defenses.

None of this bodes well for the upgraded legacy systems the United States is still procuring such as the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), and the CH-53K helicopter. At sea, swarms of cheap drones can be used to saturate and deplete a ship’s defenses designed to stop incoming missiles. Drones can use visual recognition to destroy aircraft on the flight deck, destroy specific features on the ship, or perhaps fly inside a well or hangar deck and detonate. This can render an exquisite multibillion-dollar ship blind and immobile with just $100,000 worth of drones. Although slightly more expensive, undersea drones can be used to mimic submarine acoustics, harass adversary shipping, or sink enemy vessels at great distances.

The approach of helicopters on land or sea can be met with drones designed to foul the rotors or fly into engine intakes, similar to a bird strike. This has already played out in the sky above New York City and in South Carolina, with the drone in the latter case likely responsible for causing a helicopter crash. Tracked or wheeled vehicles can be immobilized and destroyed by task-organized anti-armor swarms followed by micro drones programmed to identify and attack U.S. personnel on any number of visual cues such as uniforms, weapons, or equipment. Any drones not destroyed in an attack can be recalled and consolidated into another swarm, or they can land and wait for more targets to appear before striking again. Once fully integrated with reconnaissance platforms, this technology could make manned combat missions ashore prohibitively costly or viable only after the vast majority of machine-based threats have been neutralized.

Even in conflicts among proxies, networked learning and access to components (whether acquired, adaptively manufactured, or industrially produced) will permit adversaries to exploit capabilities that can catastrophically impact U.S. forces. All this technology either already exists or will exist in the next few years. Actors no longer need a robust military research and production capability to develop and utilize this emerging technology, as was demonstrated in Syria.

However, countries that do possess a robust military industrial base can expect exponential growth in the sophistication and effectiveness of swarms in the coming years. For example, China’s national artificial intelligence strategy seeks global dominance in swarm intelligence theory and autonomous coordination and control by the year 2030. According to a Center for New American Security report on China’s artificial intelligence development plan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing the development of “intelligent and autonomous weapons systems, including unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles, as well as military robotics and cruise missiles.” The report continues, “the PLA may seek to use swarms to target and saturate the defenses of U.S. aircraft carriers.”

The Way Forward

To stay ahead of the swarm of the future, senior leaders in the Navy and Marine Corps need to take at least six steps.

Develop an Artificial Intelligence Strategy. Navy and Marine operating concepts are beginning to address the gaps in operational design for conventional forces in the near term, but not enough is being done to develop new concepts based on the eventual dominance of swarm tactics. There is a fundamental disconnect between the capabilities of emerging technology and current operational concepts such as Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. Leadership must prioritize the development of a service and department-level artificial intelligence strategy that incorporates the way emerging technology is expected to affect operations across land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains. Moreover, senior leaders must find ways to better partner with private industry as well as recruit and retain data and computer scientists, operations research analysts, and other necessary talent.

Defund Obsolete Programs. To achieve a dominant swarm and anti-swarm capability, the Navy and Marine Corps will have to develop new command structures, military occupational specialties and operational authorizations. In doing so, it is important not to confuse adaptation with innovation. Adaptation means executing the same mission sets more efficiently, while innovation creates entirely new missions and eliminates the need for old ones. At a time when adversaries are rapidly advancing in new technology development, the opportunity costs for investing in outdated capabilities are unacceptably high.

Future funding should be divested from procurement programs that offer only a marginal increase over current capabilities like the ACV, JLTV, and the Landing Craft Utility (LCU) and instead focus on truly innovative solutions. Funding the areas of machine learning, coordination and control of swarms, additive and expeditionary manufacturing (including the printing of warheads), and defense and deception against adversary swarms offer a much more significant return on investment. Senior leaders have the opportunity to make a generational leap in capability rather than mere incremental improvements to current joint force capabilities. The challenge is to achieve an acceptable level of programmatic and operational risk while making this leap.

Moreover, killing active programs, even if they are obsolete, will require a herculean effort. Large investments in old systems and equipment tend to prevent the pursuit of fresher, more relevant ones, especially given congressional involvement and an often emotional attachment to sunk equipment costs and the status quo.

Experiment and Wargame. The Marine Air Ground Task Force of the future must develop a viable mix of unmanned and manned capabilities. The naval service should conduct significant analysis, wargames, simulation, experimentation, and force on force exercises to determine the impact emerging technology will have on air, land, and sea capabilities. This analysis should feed into a roadmap that critically examines at what point current tactics and equipment are no longer survivable or relevant, and whether are they worth continued investment.

Develop New Platforms. New classes of survivable air, land and sea platforms will be needed to deliver U.S. swarms to the area of operation. Instead of supercarriers of manned aircraft, smaller carriers of unmanned aerial systems will be cheaper, more resilient, and able to generate and sustain more sorties with fewer aircraft. Compared to currently programmed amphibious ships such as the LX (R)-class amphibious warfare ships, Littoral Combat Ship or Landing Platform Dock, ships like the frigate helicopter dock would serve as an effective surface platform to distribute other unmanned systems (as Lieutenant Colonel Noel Williams described in his article, “A Fleet for the Unmanned Era”). A flotilla of unmanned missile boats launched from such a ship, each capable of distributing and recovering a variety of unmanned systems will epitomize distributed lethality at sea. A new suite of unmanned land vehicles will also be needed to project U.S. swarms ashore.

Develop Platform-Level Non-Lethals. The Navy and Marine Corps are falling short not only in lethal offensive and defensive swarms, but also in platform-level, physical non-lethal tools. The services need a suite of non-lethal capabilities for land and sea to counter malicious behavior that falls below the threshold of lethal armed conflict. Operational commanders and regional partners need more flexible options between an overwhelming lethal response and mere offensive posturing. For example, the ability to disable ships at sea without harming the crew or stop vehicles or construction equipment without destroying them enables a range of responses and reduces the likelihood of escalation to lethal conflict. The more the military insists on focusing only on lethal tools, the less likely it will be able to prevent the conditions that usher in their use. The Navy and Marine Corps need a suite of unmanned, non-lethal capabilities for land and sea, along with an updated operating concept and a policy for employing these systems.

Establish a Permanent Experimentation Force. The services also need a dedicated experimentation force to increase the pace of innovation. The current approach of forcing concept or equipment experimentation to compete against the training needs of deploying units has so far proven unproductive. Using operational units to test new equipment in a temporary or ad-hoc way may have incrementally improved understanding, but the necessary rapid force-level changes have not resulted. Instead, systematic examination of new command structures, concepts, or technology requires a permanent organization with a dedicated staff, task-organized testing units, and experimentation protocols to quickly shape viable and effective products at the pace of adversaries’ efforts. The Marine aviation community has an effective model for concept testing, operational instruction, and fleet introduction that can be adapted for the other elements of the Marine Air Ground Task Force.


Developments in hypersonic weapons and anti-access/area denial tactics specifically designed to defeat U.S. power projection platforms threaten U.S. capabilities like never before. Autonomous systems may, sooner rather than later, be the only systems able to reliably penetrate and remain inside the range of those enemy weapons. The Marine Corps should not attempt to force ill-fitting legacy capabilities into future plans solely because they have been used in the past or because the service has a program of record and nostalgia for them. The National Defense Strategy rightly recognizes that organizational and technological innovation is essential for continued U.S. military preeminence.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps team finds itself at an inflection point similar to where U.S. land forces were at the end of World War I. The advances in tanks, machine guns, and weaponry during the war made it clear that there would be no more glamorous horse-mounted cavalry charges. Yet despite the revolution in mechanized and motorized warfare, some refused to accept the obsolescence of the horse. Congress abolished the Tank Corps of World War I in 1920. As late as 1938, Major General John K. Herr said, “We must not be misled to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse.” In an era where adversaries can launch inexpensive cubesats and have access to zetabytes of data analysis, the question is: Will Navy and Marine Corps leaders embrace the potential and future dominance of swarms, or will they continue buying more saddles?


David Pinion is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and author of the book Do Good and Fear No Man. The views expressed here are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Image: Flickr