Thinking Big with Small Drones: An Allied Approach to Swarming

Drone Swarm

NATO has taken a combined approach towards defending against drones. Now, it should show the same collaborative effort in deploying them.  

Enabling interoperable drone swarms across the alliance could yield immediate benefits for the Department of Defense while simultaneously strengthening allies with rapid information sharing and common operating pictures. It would create increased opportunities to deploy rapid, lethal, and non-lethal effects without the need for billion-dollar programs of record, bureaucratically controlled program offices, and significant infrastructure upgrades. Moreover, relatively low-cost swarming systems with interoperability between multiple countries and services could facilitate cost-sharing and ultimately reduce costs for all countries involved. This would allow allies with limited military budgets to contribute to, and reap the benefits of, advances in drone technology. 

To develop, test, and operationalize drone swarming across the NATO alliance, Washington should promote collaboration between multinational industry experts and combined, joint military planning teams with the aim of eventually hosting large-scale exercises across the globe. Ideally, subject matter experts from industry — as well as service members from various allied nations — would conduct multiple interoperability demonstrations during NATO military exercises or multi-national deployments. However, for this to occur, the Department of Defense and its NATO cohorts would need to set aside dedicated funding. 

Why Interoperability?

Consider the following exercise scenario: A swarm of drones is being controlled by a U.S. Navy destroyer patrolling 20 nautical miles off an island in the Pacific Ocean. The drone swarm is providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data back to the combat information center onboard the destroyer. Yet the mission requires simultaneous, multi-national operations on the island, which necessitate synchronization, deconfliction, and real-time information sharing between the destroyer and other coalition players in the area. 



In come the interoperable drone swarms. Imagine that the destroyer can hand off the drone swarm mid-flight to the U.S. Marines conducting amphibious operations on the island. Those marines are then able to hand off that swarm to a non-U.S., coalition aircraft overhead, which can then hand off the swarm to the ally-led ground force operating out of a coalition staging base further inland. Interoperable swarms would provide opportunities for rapid, collaborative kinetic and non-kinetic effects and a common operating picture between dissimilar platforms and forces, all without the need for relays. Combined, joint interoperability is key to drone swarms becoming a truly successful force multiplier at the tactical level.  Avoiding isolated thinking between NATO allies and military services will enable holistic defense approaches that offer relatively low-cost options. This holistic thinking will be necessary to make interoperability a reality. 

Existing Efforts

The U.S. military has been on record for nearly two decades about creating drone-swarm technology across the physical domains. Back in 2003, an Air Force Institute of Technology thesis paper comprehensively described the concept of unmanned, autonomously operated swarm vehicles. Since then, the defense industry has worked to fill the military’s desire for operationalized drone swarms. However, drone swarms have yet to be operationalized. This is partly due to the significant technological hurdles and design challenges that must be overcome. Swarm technology will have to be improved before operationalization can occur against sophisticated anti-access/area denial systems. 

Although the technology needed to address the military’s drone swarming requirements continues to be developed, the Department of Defense should think more holistically about drone swarming and the necessity for interoperability among the joint, combined force. Drone swarming enables larger-scale control of individual drones or smaller groups of drones. Currently, each service is pursuing its own drone-swarming program. This method has allowed the services to address unique domain-specific issues related to the operationalization of swarms while ensuring compatibility amongst other service-specific force elements. It is certainly important for individual services to address their specific requirements. But a comprehensive effort to employ service-agnostic swarms would be well suited to the Joint All Domain Command and Control program, furthering its goal of joint, combined interoperability and contributing to the program’s overall information architecture. This is all the more true since the Pentagon expects joint all domain command and control to counter adversary swarms in the future. 



Central Command has already recognized the need to implement small-drone technology across the joint force quickly with the creation of Task Force 59 and Task Force 99. These task forces were developed to foster technological innovation and counter adversaries in the region while mitigating reduced troop numbers as the Department of Defense shifts its focus towards strategic competitors. Furthering these efforts with drone swarms that allow for interoperability among the U.S. military services, as well as NATO allies, will support the National Security Strategy goal of strengthening allies and the National Defense Strategy goal of creating a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem while also supplying coalition forces with relatively cheap, multi-functional warfighting systems at the tactical level. 

Existing Technologies

The technology now exists for the Department of Defense to use American hardware and software capabilities to help the U.S. military operationalize drone swarms the right way, ensuring interoperability within the joint and combined forces in the air, land, and maritime domains.

Those that have ever had the pleasure of seeing a drone light show know that the technology exists to synchronize massive amounts of drones to create intricate displays of lights and shapes. However, the ability to create true drone swarms has significantly progressed and is primed for military application. There are viable options to pursue interoperable drone swarming programs today. Defense industry companies have already created artificially intelligent drone swarms that operate autonomously. They can be launched from various types of air, maritime, and land-specific platforms using universal common launch tubes. These same family-of-system drones can conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and kinetic attacks while allowing users to interface with the systems via laptop or tablet. Family-of-systems use the hub-and-spoke approach, where a central platform is built in conjunction with variations of accompanying platforms in order to allow for seamless integration and operation. Similarly, civilian defense companies have already partnered to create control mechanisms for formations of up to four disparate, unmanned vehicles across multiple domains. Furthermore, these same companies have created the ability to pass control between operators using handheld tablet interfaces — without the need to shut down the platforms in use. 

True drone swarms differ from coordinated drone displays used in light shows

in that the drones in a swarm can collectively operate with each other while remaining independent and avoiding collision without the use of a centralized computer. The swarming ability is made possible by artificial intelligence and the principles of separation, alignment, and cohesion. Despite continued maturation of artificial intelligence used to control drone swarms, programs such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s OFFensive Swarm Enabled Tactics have demonstrated present-day availability of this technology throughout multiple demonstrations in simulated urban environments. The agency’s more recent Autonomous Multi-Domain Adaptive Swarms-of-Swarms program aims to take the current technology a step further by controlling thousands of drones at once. This decentralized control allows drones within a swarm to physically separate at much farther distances than would be capable with centrally controlled drones while attacking separate targets. A 2018 U.S. Army study noted that swarming technology can significantly shift the tactical advantage to the user due to the swarm’s ability to “adapt and selectively target in a way that they shape the battlefield” through the primary uses of swarm breaching, swarm-area defense, and wide-area intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance swarms. 


Payload and range are glaring limitations when it comes to small drones. However, mass and high-precision targeting effects can mitigate payload constraints. The Air Force is already planning experiments to use remotely piloted aircraft as range-extending motherships for smaller drones. This approach can facilitate swarm employment. Survivability is another concern for swarm operationalization. Penetrating, low-observable, optionally-manned B-21s will be an ideal platform to employ these drone swarms once the next-generation bomber achieves full operating capability. With the Air Force’s hypersonic missile programs and family-of-systems concept, not to mention initiatives from other services and coalition partners, the platform-based opportunities for swarm employment start to add up. 

Swarming operations will face threats when conducted in close proximity to enemy forces. Nonetheless, ground-launched drone swarms would be beneficial after adversary anti-access/area denial systems have largely been defeated. In these situations, special operations forces conducting missions behind enemy lines or conventional ground units amassing near the forward edge of the battle area would not be hindered by the limited range of ground-launched swarms in a non-permissive environment. 


Ensuring interoperability amongst drone swarms can offer multi-faceted solutions to modern-day military problems. The Department of Defense should emphasize drone swarm interoperability just as much as the individual capabilities of the drone swarms themselves. The U.S. military has the potential to operationalize low-cost, rapidly deployable drone swarms across the land, air, and maritime domains using the joint force while also integrating NATO allies. However, it is crucial for allies to be involved in the operationalization of these swarms from the outset to reap the full benefits of combined, joint interoperability. NATO members France, Spain, and the United Kingdom have already announced their own drone-swarming projects, all of which have had successful demonstrations. Combined, joint interoperability will make these swarms even more valuable. Interoperability is not only key to winning at the tactical level but also to strengthening allies at the strategic level.



Tyler Jackson is a U.S. Air Force officer. He is a graduate of Howard University and the University of Oklahoma and is currently assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School as a graduate student. He is a senior remotely piloted aircraft pilot and former combat systems officer who has amassed over 1700 combat and combat support hours.  

The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. Government.

Image: U.S. Army Photo by Pv2 James Newsome