Leonardo conducted a successful demonstration in cooperation with the U.K. Royal Air Force of an autonomous swarm of unmanned aircraft

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The Royal Air Force (RAF), in partnership with Leonardo, successfully conducted a live trial of a ‘swarming drones’ capability targeting a simulated enemy air defense radar.

During the demo, a swarm made by several remotely-piloted aircraft equipped with Leonardo’s BriteCloud electronic warfare active decoy technology was used to confuse and overwhelm trial radars simulating enemy air defense systems.

The demonstration was held as part of an RAF Rapid Capability Office (RCO) program evaluating combat swarm techniques, using multiple small unmanned aerial systems.

Inspired by swarms of insects, the concept for swarming drones has already been recognized by the UK Ministry of Defence as a potentially game-changing future technology. The information gained from the demonstration will inform potential future UK programs to acquire an autonomous swarming drone capability.

Leonardo announced it had carried out the swarm demonstration, which it conducted together with the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), as well as private unmanned technology firms Callen-Lenz and Blue Bear, on Oct. 7, 2020.

The latter two firms, as well as Boeing, are working on prototype semi-autonomous “loyal wingman” type drones for the RAF, which that service also refers to as “remote carriers,” as part of Project Mosquito, which is itself a component of the larger Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) program.

“During the demonstration, a number of Callen Lenz drones were equipped with a modified Leonardo BriteCloud decoy, allowing each drone to individually deliver a highly-sophisticated jamming effect,” according to Leonardo’s press release.

“They were tested against ground-based radar systems representing the enemy air defence emplacement. A powerful demonstration was given, with the swarm of BriteCloud-equipped drones overwhelming the threat radar systems with electronic noise.”

For reasons that are unclear, Leonardo has since removed its press release from its website, though an archived copy of the page remains available through Google. The company also deleted an official Tweet with an infographic, a copy of which is seen below, regarding BriteCloud and this demonstration.

Leonardo did not offer any details about the unmanned aircraft used in the demonstration. Artist’s conceptions of a drone swarm strike that the company released along with the announcement, seen at the top of this story and in the infographic above, showed a tailless fixed-wing design with a single, rear-mounted pusher propeller and fixed undercarriage.

However, there is no indication one way or another if this in any way reflects the Callen-Lenz design employed in the recent test.

The demonstration showed how a swarm of BriteCloud-equipped drones overwhelmed the threat radar systems with electronic noise. The trial followed a rapid cycle of development that saw the RCO and Leonardo’s engineers working closely with UK SMEs Callen Lenz and Blue Bear that provided the drones and mission management systems.

The demonstration showed how a swarm of BriteCloud-equipped drones overwhelmed the threat radar systems with electronic noise.

BriteCloud is a smart jammer designed in a small form factor packed in a small tin-can size container. BriteCloud creates a false target so convincing that technologies designed to spot decoys are rendered ineffective, allowing a much wider range of threat systems to be defeated. Using advanced DRFM-based technology that provides both Doppler and range obscuration, BriteCloud defeats chaff discrimination techniques and systems with range and velocity ‘gates’.

Initially deployed as an off-board expendable active decoy (EAD), BriteCloud is operational with the RAF since 2018. The EAD protects combat jets against enemy radar-guided missiles. Each round can mimic the aircraft’s radar signature from it is launched, causing threat radar systems to track the decoy rather than the aircraft itself.

UK drone specialist Blue Bear reports completion of the second phase of the 18-month 5GRIT project, culminating in drone flights on an arable farm in Yorkshire and a livestock farm in Cumbria, controlled over 5G from hundreds of miles away in London and Bedford.

A Disrupting New Capability

Swarm technology is progressing rapidly in the UK. In 2019 the UK Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) awarded £2.5m to a consortium led by Blue Bear Systems Research Ltd to develop drone swarm technology. The goal was to deploy advanced autonomy, through machine learning and AI to reduce the number of operators required, the time it takes to train them, and the cognitive burden on any operator during active operations. BlueBear first demonstrated this capability in April 2020.

The ability to deploy a group of low-cost autonomous systems, self-controlled or managed by a single operator, delivers a new paradigm for battlefield operations. This allows very complex swarm-based missions to be performed simultaneously against single or multiple targets in a time-sensitive and highly effective manner.

The UK MOD is accelerating the development of swarms of network-enabled drones under the £160m Transformation Fund announced in 2019.

These systems will be capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defenses. Spearheading formations of F35 and Typhoon combat aircraft, these drone swarms will be able to penetrate denied airspace, using deception and suppression of key air defenses assets inside Anti-Access Area-Denied (A2AD) airspace.

In April 2020 the 216 Squadron was reformed at RAF Waddington, to lead operational experimenting and deployment of network-enabled drones. Such missions are now part of the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI), delivering the Tempest 6 Gen combat aircraft in the 2030s.

Drone and swarm technology are part of the MOD Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI), complementing the Tempest. Image: Leonardo

Unlike a plane dropping expendable BriteClouds, in the recent demonstration, Leonardo noted that “the decoy packages were programmed and navigated to work collaboratively to cause maximum confusion.”

Placing the jammers inside drones offers the ability to help space them out for optimal coverage across a wide area. The entire swarm provides immense additional flexibility by being able to rapidly shift its focus from one area to another to respond to new developments in the battlespace.

Above all else, they allow BriteCloud to employ its bag of tricks over longer periods of time and even execute multiple electronic attacks instead of just one.

At the same time, the off-the-shelf electronic warfare expendables are just that, expendable. If you lose one and its drone platform, it isn’t a big deal as they are meant to be expendable in the first place.

As such, they are the very definition of attritable. This term refers to designs that could be recovered and reused, but that are also cheap enough for commanders to be willing to commit them to higher-risk missions where there is a significant chance of them getting knocked down.

The RAF is not the only one to be looking at drone swarms, or otherwise networking munitions and other expendable stores together to reduce duplication of effort and otherwise improve the efficacy of strikes and other missions.

The U.S. Air Force is in the midst of its own networked munition program, called Golden Horde, and the Army recently revealed plans to develop swarms of air-launched drones carrying electronic warfare systems and other payloads, efforts that you can read about in more detail in these past War Zone pieces.

The general idea of using an autonomous swarm of drones to blind, confuse, and overwhelm an enemy’s integrated air defense network, or other sensor and communication nodes, is hardly new, either and is one of the most common missions envisioned for such a group of unmanned aircraft.

Carrying out such missions in the open stages of conflict would make good sense as they would help clear paths for other manned and unmanned aircraft, including more vulnerable, non-stealthy types, to conduct follow-on kinetic strikes or carry out other tasks, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Depending on the size and capability of the basic drones in the swarm, its possible that entire autonomous grouping could carry out multiple missions itself simultaneously, including ISR and kinetic strike. Stand-in expendable decoys, such as BriteCloud, could be combined with other non-kinetic options, such as existing and emerging standoff decoys and expendable electronic warfare systems, as well.

Last year, European missile consortium MBDA, of which Leonardo is a part, notably unveiled plans for a SPEAR-EW version of its SPEAR-3 miniature cruise missile. SPEAR-EW will carry an electronic warfare jammer, one that may well utilize technology from BriteCloud, instead of an explosive warhead.

There has already been talk of networking SPEAR-EWs and SPEAR-3s together to carry strikes as their own kind of autonomous swarm. You can read more about SPEAR-EW and the concepts of operation surrounding it in more detail in this past War Zone piece.

This test also speaks to where the RAF in the United Kingdom is at developmentally when it comes to its drone swarm efforts, which it first unveiled plans for last year. The service established a dedicated unit to explore both loyal wingman and swarm concepts, 216 Squadron, this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed its expansion. 

This demonstration of integrating BriteCloud into lower-end drones would certainly seem to offer a very viable path to a useful drone swarm capability for the RAF in the near term. It could be then combined it with higher-end, heavier unmanned aircraft capabilities as part of a broader swam strategy in the future, as well.

If nothing else, Leonardo’s demonstration in cooperation with the RAF highlights how drone swarms capable of carrying out a multitude of mission sets are moving ever closer to becoming a key component for future combat operations.

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