Are Drone Swarms Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Reports warn of "Nagasaki levels of potential harm"

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issued an article yesterday describing the growing presence of drone swarms as a “future weapon of mass destruction.” The label seems hyperbolic, but the Bulletin is all too correct in asserting that the mass proliferation of weaponized drones is both inevitable and already underway.

When the Army announced it was seeking to expand the ratio of handheld drones in some units beyond one-to-one, it was thought that such a capability might improve the situational awareness of warfighters on the ground. The Marines, however, had a plan to enable an individual Marine to control as many as 15 drones at a time, each carrying an explosive payload.

Two years prior, however, largely lost in the maelstrom of the media’s Trump obsession, the military had already successfully deployed 103 drones from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. It was just one part of the military’s push to increase lethality by raising the ratio of unmanned craft to personnel. The relative lack of traction that story received helps to underscore the Bulletin’s fear that the public is all too unaware of the destructive potential of drone swarms.

“To hit Nagasaki levels of potential harm,” the Bulletin’s article reads, “a drone swarm would only need 39,000 armed drones, and perhaps fewer if the drones had explosives capable of harming multiple people.”

If that number seems high, it is worth noting that China successfully fielded 3,281 pre-programmed drones earlier this week. Meanwhile, India has expressed a desire to automate a 1,000-drone swarm, and the U.S. Navy is actively developing a so-called “super swarm” that it hopes will one day link one million drones.

In addition the immense scale of swarm technologies being developed is the threat of their increased automation as artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities are improved upon.

The Army is moving away from the use of a centralized learning unit in controlling drone swarms and is developing a distributed, hierarchical model of swarm learning that allows drones in the field to reduce their learning time by as much as 80 percent. By decentralizing the learning process of drone swarms, developers are able to create much more scalable swarms, as each individual drone only required in interpret data about its own surroundings rather than that of the whole swarm.

That scalability, combined with the mass availability and relative ease of linking and weaponizing commercial drones, is precisely what terrifies the Bulletin, and has raised red flags among the military community as well.

In an article published last year by the Modern War Institute, Zachary Kallenborn warned that a subset of drones known as Armed, Fully Autonomous Drone Swarms (AFADS) presented a sufficiently scalable potential for mass and indiscriminate harm as to warrant a permanent ban of their introduction into neutral territory such as the seabed and space by the international community.

In a paper written for the Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, Kallenborn further argued that a key factor in determining the WMD status of drone swarms ought to be whether or not the swarm is wholly automated.

Such efforts are already well underway, however, with the Army developing fully automated swarms to protect attack helicopters and technology contractors like Anduril developing automated operations systems.

Both efforts represent a potentially alarming means of automating killing in a manner that the military previously swore it would not do, though now the general consensus appears to be that the military is merely waiting for authorization to field automated weapons platforms that do not rely on having a human “in-the-loop.”

Autonomous weapons of one variety or another have existed for decades. The destructive capacity and ease of use and availability inherent to drone swarms, however, has never been matched. The world is very close to entering an era defined by widespread, wholly automated killing, and the simple fact is that no international treaty will prevent the adoption of weaponized drone swarms by non-state actors.

Put simply, the potential that drone swarms will be used to initiate a mass casualty event is not negligible. In all likelihood, the potential danger that drones represent to the average civilian will soon outstrip that of nuclear arms. Nations and individuals should act accordingly.

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