Bringing the Swarm to Life: Roles, Missions, and Campaigns for the Replicator Initiative


Can you kill a bear with a thousand paper cuts or slay a dragon with an armada of toy boats? Many a wargame I have participated in suggests you can. Beyond rolling dice and questioning salvo exchange models, the challenge is understanding the types of battles and larger campaigns where swarms make a difference.

From debates about the viability of Project Replicator to the Ukrainian calls to build a million first person view drones in 2024, there is a rising tide of interest in low-cost, attritable battlefield effects. The swarm is now a “new” theory of victory. Yet, what roles and missions will these swarms make possible? Tactical adaption and the unforgiving feedback loop of the battlefield are helping Ukraine answer these questions. What is missing in the Replicator discussion in U.S. national security community is a tangible set of scenarios that support strategic analysis.



To that end, I propose a series of ideal typical missions in support of capabilities development and refining continency and campaign plans. Specifically, three concepts of operations emerge: imposing costs, denying terrain, and buying time. Swarms offer viable options for imposing costs linked to the concept of virtual attritionand how much an adversary expects to gain from a particular course of action. They offer low-cost ways — similar to mines and obstacles — of denying terrain. In an era of great-power competition between nuclear adversaries, drone swarms offer a new rung on the escalation ladder that buys time and space for political leaders to form prudent crisis response strategies.

Roles and Missions for the Swarm

Previous work on mosaic warfare, swarming, and operational art highlights the ability of a swarm to generate asymmetries by using low-cost systems to hold an adversaries’ critical capabilities at risk.

For example, if the People’s Liberation Army chooses to cross the Taiwan Strait, they need troop transports and destroyers. If small, unmanned speed boats can damage billion-dollar surface connectors while air-launched drones create clutter and attack radars, blinding the destroyers, it makes the crossing more precarious. The Chinese military has to either assume more risk or divert additional resources to protect its force, slowing or even halting the operation. The expected costs change relative to the anticipated benefits, making certain courses of action less tenable. This rational logic is why swarms are potentially as important for deterrence as they are for warfighting.

Holding critical capabilities at risk requires the swarm to be networked, dynamically retaskable, and multi-mission capable. Clever tacticians need to be able to swap warheads for synthetic aperture radars and decoys for signals intelligence and electronic warfare payloads to create different combinations of effects based on the critical vulnerabilities that emerge from the chaos of the battlefield. That is, because war is a non-linear system, the swarm has to be able to sense and adapt to emerging advantages faster than its target. This requirement implies that swarms need a tremendous amount of intelligence and logistics. Constant updates to targeting and moving the swarm into position while regenerating salvos (i.e., swarm-in-being as the next potential attack vector) require planning and good old fashion staff work even if new AI/machine learning co-pilots help along the wary. To achieve the right economy of scale, it also puts a premium on ensuring both hardware and software are interoperable with allies. This measure requires as much time and effort spent on defense policy as on force employment, development, and design.

Being more adaptable than the adversary puts the enemy off balance and into constantly guessing the next move. Fear of the unknown compounds to skew rational decision-making. This compounding effect alters how an adversary arrays their forces relative to expected decisive points leading to a misallocation of scarce battlefield resources and adding time and friction to an operation.

Consider Ukraine’s recent success in the Black Sea. It is not the unmanned surface vessels alone that create the asymmetry. It is how large numbers of these unmanned surface vessels are combined with raids, cruise missile strikes, intelligence, deception, and electronic warfare that keep the Russians constantly guessing and wondering what will hit them next. The Black Sea fleet wasn’t defeated. Rather, the risk of suffering further loses to constant attacks without a clear counterattack option forced the Russian navy to retreat to safer areas further east. Anticipation and fear of the next attack matter as much as the current fight in swarming. The principles of surprise, maneuver, and objective are as important as mass. For Russia, the benefits of occupying maritime terrain west of Crimea proved less than the anticipated costs.

Given this logic, three roles and missions emerge as purpose statements (i.e., the “why” of military action) for swarming formations: impose costs, deny terrain, and buy time. As the operational purpose for employing a tactical swarm, the logic of each mission speaks to different requirements and even unique task organizations. Put another way, visualizing and describing roles and missions for swarms supports defense planning scenarios and analyzing the mix of forces and functions required for modern great-power competition.

Impose Costs

Cost imposition has a long history in competitive strategy. Applied to swarming roles and missions, the theory of advantage lies in the correlation of forces and convincing an adversary that the costs of a particular course of action are disproportionate to the value of the objective. The focus of sequencing tactical actions is on enemy forces and altering their decision-making process by manipulating the expected cost to achieve a benefit.

For example, the Chinese military could try to secure outlying Taiwanese islands as part of a joint blockadeand pressure campaign. In addition to airborne and air assault insertions, the People’s Liberation Army might deploy amphibious forces. If the sum total cost of a swarm of unmanned air and maritime systems is only a fraction of the costs of a Type 55 guided missile cruiser and/or a Type 075 landing ship, it alters how the Chinese military approaches a joint forcible entry operation. Cost curves change courses of action. Low-cost, attritable swarms are a game-changer if they alter adversary decision-making.

Intelligence looms large over this scenario, creating clear requirements for near-to-midterm (3–5 year) force development. First, Taiwan is not Ukraine and the front will look different. It will not be enough to have thousands of small drone operators terrorizing People’s Liberation Army soldiers on the beach or unmanned speed boats littering the littorals with mines. Both beach defense and sea denial will require long-range intelligence, complex battle networks to pass and aggregate information into target quality tracks, and good old-fashioned planning about when and where to fire the next swarming salvo. These requirements put a premium on capabilities like multi-purpose platforms and wide-area surveillance platforms, integrating mannedand unmanned teams. The trick will be to sense and launch effects faster than the adversary can react, putting a premium on a high-low mix of capabilities. In other words, low-cost and attritable assets require a battle network. And this network has to be able to pass data — including target quality tracks — between coalition partners using cloud-based programs that fuse open source data, like THRESHER and SeaVision. No network, no swarm.

Deny Terrain

Denial-based strategies have a long history in security studies. The concept traditionally invokes some action that frustrates an adversary’s military power. Since military power is multidimensional, this process of frustration can range from eliminating capabilities and tactical degradation to operational paralysis and strategic effect reduction. In terms of sequencing tactical actions in time and space, the most common approach to denial is focused on terrain and how to make it increasingly difficult for an adversary to hold key terrain or advance along a mobility corridor. This logic also extends to air denial. As it relates to modern capabilities, many analysts see new approaches to air denial limiting adversary freedom of action, often linked to lessons from Ukraine and Corbettian approaches to seapower.

Returning to the scenario above, any effort to insert Chinese military forces on even outlying Taiwanese islands will start with air and maritime forces isolating the objective. If these forces struggle to get close because of cheap air defenses — whether air- or ground-launched — and sea lines of communication covered with smart mines and high-speed unmanned boats circling like sharks, the force is effectively frustrated. Their freedom of action has been constrained and their forces canalized in time and space.

Logistics also loom large over this scenario. Denying air lines of communication will require a mix of long-range air-to-air shots holding medium- and high-altitude airspace at risk, and dispersed short-range air defenses that limit the use of low-altitude airspace. The more these activities can advantage of existing missile inventories — such as the FrankenSAM program seen in Ukraine and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s long shot program — the more constrained the adversary’s choices become.

Magazine depth matters in denial-based approaches. The same logic applies to networks of smart mines andunmanned surface vessels. Their utility is in slowing down an adversary, which opens attack vectors from lower-inventory long-range anti-ship missiles and submarines lurking beneath the surface. No one is afraid of one land mine. They are paralyzed when hundreds are scattered around key terrain. And that paralysis is the best time for an artillery strike.

Buy Time

The highest art of war is found in winning without fighting, especially when the conflict involves nuclear-armed states. From Sun Tzu to the emergence of modern deterrence theory, military force plays a dual role both as a threat designed to shape behavior and as a sword. Therefore, Replicator swarms should also contribute to conventional deterrence and provide flexible options for crisis management. At the operational level, the focus of sequencing tactical actions is on friendly forces and using trip wires and risk-worthy platforms to create a strategic space for diplomacy and crisis communication.

Before the Chinese Communist Party launched any military action, it would likely seek to set conditions. This crisis management strategy is more likely to use the threat of force than a fait accompli even if it involves increased military deployments and warning strikes. If the United States and its partners can get risk-worthy swarms in place, they have the potential — beyond raising costs and denying benefits — to encourage restraint. If a $100,000 drone is destroyed, the U.S. president doesn’t have to make a speech to the nation that increases domestic audience costs and contributes to the risk of runaway escalation spirals.

Intelligence and logistics support conventional deterrence in this scenario. Once again, no network, no swarm. The United States, along with its network of partners and allies, will need warning time and the ability to pass information along an interoperable battle network. This network should fuse commercial data on everything from commodity prices in China and rail patterns to social media sentiment with sensitive signals intelligence.

Second, the adversary has to know you have a deep enough magazine. It is not just enough to be cheap. The swarm has to be easy to manufacture in terms of time and resources and capable of being rapidly produced in multiple allied countries. Companies offering cheap swarms without proven manufacturing capability may be selling a false promise.

Roles and Missions Are Just the Beginning

Establishing the logic of Replicator and swarming has the potential to unleash wider changes across the Department of Defense in terms of everything from doctrine and task organization to training and education. More importantly, it could create a focal point for better aligning defense resources for a new era of competition.

New theories of victory require new echelons and creative combinations of concepts and capabilities to sequence tactical actions in time, space, and purpose. Imagining these formations and prioritizing capabilities requires a set of defense scenarios linked to major plans and foundational concepts in military theory.

In that spirit, this article is an invitation for a wider debate about swarming roles and missions. Replicator is a noble promise and one that should transition across the election in 2024. That requires an open debate and vibrant marketplace of ideas in place of closed working groups and overly managed field experiments. The Defense Department needs debates, wargames, and tests that support a more agile approach to combat development often disincentivized in the modern military bureaucracy.

Based on the initial scenario analysis, a few ideas for further discussion emerge. First, there is no Replicator swarm without a battle network. And there are reasons to be skeptical that service-led efforts to connect the force will bear fruit as they often struggle to overcome legacy policies and processes that limit military innovation. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about major joint efforts like the Global Information Dominance Exercise, which focuses on real-world experimentation and planning to envision how best to employ AI and machine learning in modern crisis planning. Second, the promise of swarming requires a clear defense industrial policy that prioritizes mass production and scalability over exquisite prototypes and technology demonstrations. Quantity still has a quality all its own. Swarms need a deep magazine and few, if any barriers, to being built and fielded by partners and allies.


Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D., is a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting in the Marine Corps University and a senior fellow in the Futures Lab at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. The views expressed are those of a swarming addict and like his misplaced creativity, youth, and will are strictly his own and not indicative of any official government or industry position.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Juel Foster