Reconnaissance and attack: German Bundeswehr is working on drone swarms

In various projects, the military and the defence industry are investigating the networking of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles. For the Air Force, they could in small numbers support air combat; for the Army, they can detect and destroy nearby targets in large swarms.

In various projects, the Army and Air Force are researching the „Manned-Unmanned-Teaming“ (MUM-T) of drones that, for example, support fighter jets or helicopters in reconnaissance or attack ground targets in advance flight. The number of accompanying drones is theoretically unlimited and is primarily determined by the computing power of the military control system on the ground.

From 2022, the European Defence Agency wants to fund corresponding research. This is what the German Ministry of Defence writes in its answer to a parlamentarian question. The planned project is called „Autonomous, Reconfigurable Swarms of Unmanned Vehicles for Defense Applications“ (ACHILLES); the unmanned aerial vehicles are to carry out surveillance tasks. The projectalso includes the possible integration of the networked drones into the airspace controlled by civilian air traffic controllers.

Drones from missile manufacturer

According to the response, the German Air Force also wants to conduct further tests with swarms of drones. A Learjet will act as the lead aircraft, accompanied by target drones. Similar tests had already been carried out by the armament division of Airbus on a military training ground. They are connected with the European „Future Combat Air System“ (FCAS), which Airbus wants to produce with the French defence company Dassault Aviation from 2040. The German parliament is expected to decide on the next stage of development this summer.

Model of MBDA’s „Remote Carrier“ (MBDA).

Under the FCAS, the drone swarms are called „Remote Carriers“, which are networked with the combat aircraft and installations on the ground via a „Combat Cloud“. According to the plans, Airbus is responsible for this, and intends to subcontract this work to the European missile manufacturer MBDA.

MBDA showed how the „Remote Carriers“ used in the FCAS could look like with the RC100 and RC200 at the Le Bourget air show two years ago. They weigh around 100 and 200 kilogrammes respectively and have stealth properties. They would be controlled with the help of artificial swarm intelligence. The missile manufacturer cites the ability to „always react quicker than the adversary“ as one of the biggest challenges.

Dropping from transport aircraft

As payloads, MBDA drones could carry sensors for reconnaissance, and they could also be equipped with facilities for electromagnetic jamming and deception of enemy systems. Weaponisation is also a possibility, with one senior official calling it „integrated kinetic effect“. Only in this way would the agile drones also be „perceived as a threat“ by adversaries. In addition to drones, guided missiles could be integrated into the deadly swarm and together „penetrate protected areas“.

Simulated dropping of drone swarms in Airbus research project (Airbus, Screenshot YouTube).

The „Remote Carriers“ can be launched from fighter jets, transport aircraft or even ships. At the end of a related research project, Airbus recently worked with the German Aerospace Centre to simulate the dropping of a swarm of drones from an A400 transport aircraft. The project included the design of an appropriate mount to drop the drones in a similar way to parachute loads.

The coordination of a swarm of drones places high demands on fighter jet pilots. That is why the Luftwaffe is already conducting „human-in-the-loop“ studies with all Eurofighter and Tornado crews for future operational concepts. In this study, entitled OpFoKus („Operational Request Cooperation Unmanned Systems“), drones are to support air combat under enemy fighter jets. „Air war scenarios to be expected in the future“ are being tested in simulators.

Humans „hand over control to the machine“

The German Army has also been working on drone swarms for several years. At the beginning of the decade, the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich started the project „Cognitive Automated Sensor Integrated Unmanned Mission System“ (CASIMUS) for the „semi-autonomous mission control“ of drones. In the meantime, the investigations are being continued as CASIMUS II.

Guidance of unmanned aerial vehicles from the helicopter cockpit (Universität der Bundeswehr).

The Bundeswehr University is also developing applications for „Mission and Command Planning from the Cockpit“. Using such a system, helicopter pilots can give orders to a drone for specific mission scenarios. According to the project description, human also „hands over control to the machine“. The assistance system is being improved with the help of artificial intelligence, for which the pilot’s manoeuvres in the simulator are recorded and evaluated with eye movement measurement systems.

In the first phase, the results of CASIMUS were still simulated. According to the answer from the Ministry of Defence, the project also included flight tests with an Airbus H145 helicopter and a LUNA NG. Among other things, „combat reconnaissance“ was to be tested.

High degree of automation

In 2017, the company ESG Elektroniksystem- und Logistik, which regularly conducts studies for the German Armed Forces, investigated procedures for controlling a helicopter drone from a helicopter. The research was carried out as part of the MiDEA („Mission Accompaniment by Drones for Reconnaissance and Intelligence“) project, which was launched by the Ministry of Defence.

„Manned-Unmanned-Teaming“ with helicopter drone (ESG).

A year later, ESG gave a public demonstration of the results together with the Bundeswehr’s Bundeswehr Technical Centre. In the process, the company’s unmanned vertical take-off aircraft completed various missions, including „deliver reconnaissance data“ and „reconnoitre possible landing zones“. The experimental drone had flown with a „high degree of automation“ in the process. In the same year, Airbus‘ helicopter division demonstrated „Manned-Unmanned Teaming“ using an H145 helicopter and an S-100 Camcopter made by Austrian drone manufacturer Schiebel. According to an Airbus manager, the system will be used primarily for scenarios where there is a threat of being shot down.

According to Airbus, the drones fly with a high degree of automation. This is described in five levels of a so-called „Level of Interoperability“ (LoI) according to international standards. The interaction of a manned and unmanned helicopter is said to have reached the highest level 5. This means that the entire flight, including take-off and landing, is handled by a routine. Airbus wants to use this in the civilian sector in the future.

„Oversaturation attacks“ with large numbers of drones

Concrete procurements of drone swarms are not planned for the German Army at the moment, but the need has already been formulated. Two years ago, a position paper by the Office of Army Development described scenarios for the future use of networked „Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems“ (TaUAS). These could carry out various „sub-missions“ „from reconnaissance to interdiction to offensive means of action“.

TaUAS study on drone swarms in the army (Army Development Office).

According to the paper, the army drones with a range of up to 40 kilometres should hardly be protected. They could compensate for this high vulnerability by „oversaturation attacks“ of a large number of aircraft. For this purpose, the Bundeswehr is to develop a container holding 100 such drones. At this base station, the TaUAS would be able to recharge automatically.

With the help of artificial intelligence, the drones would operate largely autonomously. This also explicitly applies to armed combat. As unmanned weapon systems, they would have the „ability to sneak/insert“ and be deployed „in several waves for the targeted step-by-step elimination of important capabilities“ of the enemy. As possible targets, the Office mentions attacking „combat vehicles or sensitive components of light armoured vehicles“.

Image: Airbus and MBDA are developing drone swarms with different capabilities for „air superiority“ (Airbus, Screenshot YouTube).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.