After the German Armed Forces, the EU also wants to research drone swarms that are dropped from a mother ship
The European Union could invest more funds in the development of drone swarms in the future. This is according to documents published by the British non-governmental organisation Statewatch on the next round of funding for the Permanent Structured Cooperation. The initiative, shortened to PESCO after its English name, promotes military cooperation between 25 EU member states. The focus is on the financing and implementation of joint armament projects. A “European Defence Union” envisaged in this way is also to make greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Among the proposals is the development of a vertically launching large drone with “large number” of small unmanned rotorcraft inside. These could then be dropped over combat zones. After their mission, they would fly back to the platform autonomously. The project is called “Rotorcraft Docking Station for Drones” and the leading member state would be Italy with France as another member. The Bundeswehr wants to participate in the project as an observer. Whether the project is actually financed is decided by all member states in the Council of the European Union.
The German Ministry of Defence reported on such a project, “Autonomous, Reconfigurable Swarms of Unmanned Vehicles for Defense Applications” (ACHILLES), in response to a parlamentarian question this summer. According to this, it could be set up via the European Defence Agency (EDA).
The capability of unmanned swarm flight with a “mother ship” is called “Manned-Unmanned-Teaming” (MUM-T). The term refers to drones that support, for example, fighter jets or helicopters in advance flight for reconnaissance or attacking ground targets. Because this is a highly complex network, the control must be supported or even completely taken over by software. The defence company Airbus, for example, is developing this in connection with the “Future Combat Air System” (FCAS), which is to be produced from 2040. There, the drones are referred to as “Remote Carriers”. According to a draft, they will weigh around 100 and 200 kilograms respectively, have stealth capabilities and can be armed. Airbus wants to cooperate with the European missile manufacturer MBDA for their development. The company has already simulated the dropping of such a swarm of drones from an A400 transport aircraft of the German Bundeswehr.
The German Air Force is also conducting tests with drone swarms. A Learjet acts there as the lead aircraft, accompanied by so-called target drones. They are also manufactured by Airbus. Initial tests were conducted over the Baltic Sea and on a training ground in Finland. All Eurofighter and Tornado crews are already being prepared for future cooperation with the unmanned systems.
Finally, the German Army also wants drones that can be used in conjunction with manned aircraft. They are to accompany a helicopter and, for example, reconnoitre landing sites or a “battlefield”. This is initially an assistance system, so the pilots do not relinquish all control to the drone. However, the technology is also being further developed with the help of artificial intelligence. Airbus’ helicopter division is also working on implementing manned unmanned teaming with a helicopter and a large helicopter drone. According to Airbus, these systems can fly with the highest possible degree of automation. In this case, the entire flight, including take-off and landing, is handled by a routine.
According to a position paper by the Office of Army Developments, the drone swarms could carry out so-called supersaturation attacks. Even if many of the unmanned aircraft are shot down by an opponent, they are supposed to render him incapacitated by their sheer numbers. The Bundeswehr is asked to develop a container holding 100 such drones for this purpose. They are to return there automatically when their batteries need to be recharged. Any armed combat is also to be carried out autonomously.
Image: Simulated drop of drone swarms in Airbus research project (Screenshot YouTube).