By Sergeant Lee Tomàs

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sergeant Lee Tomàs of the Royal Air Force (RAF) examines the implications of Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) for future conflicts.

In 1941, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams was on vacation in the South-West of America within the famous Carlsbad Caverns. While exploring Carlsbad’s vast expanse, he observed it hosted thousands of indigenous Bats. Adams was monumentally impressed by what he saw and then just as history has often taught us previously, the most remarkable ideas often derive from the strangest of places, at a random moment, when separate paths conjoin. Much like Sir Isaac Newton when the Apple hit his head, thus propelling him in founding the theory of gravity.[1] Adams’ similar ‘eureka’ moment did not derive from when he observed the Bats in Carlsbad’s deep and damp expanse; it was when he turned on his car radio when departing, which amplified that the Imperial Japanese Navy had devastatingly attacked Pearl Harbor. Adams at that precise moment began plotting an unorthodox plan of revenge against America’s new enemy; the Japanese, using what he had seen previously that day; the Bats.[2]

The idea that developed from Adams’ eureka moment was to attach incendiary material onto swarms of collected Bats, who previously (through the research and development stages of the idea) were trained to hibernate in large storage refrigerators. The final phase of Adams’ plan was for these Bats to be dropped from an aircraft in a bomb casing encompassing similar properties to the aforementioned refrigerators. These would then open mid-air, dispersing the Bats outwards onto Japanese cities below to seek warmth and sanctuary within enemy building structures, inside eaves and roofs, which during that period in Japan were made of highly flammable material. The Bats would then go kinetic, catch fire, and subsequently demolish their host building target.[3] Adams’ own words would describe the predicted results of the later titled Project X-Ray. ‘Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped.’ He later recalled that ‘Japan could have been devastated, yet with a small loss of life.’[4]

Adams’ creation of Project X-Ray could be perceived as pure lunacy to the untrained eye, however, with the present-day parameters of modern warfare constantly evolving, sometimes a little bit of lunacy can be effective in achieving the desired strategic aim. Adams’ premise of causing considerable amounts of effective damage upon one’s enemy, with the least amount of innocent lives taken, through the hostile deployment of these mini-warfare-vessels might, in the future, be a viable solution. Project X-Ray’s legacy, concept and its underpinning tactical peripherals of swarm-based aerial strategies will be forwarded within this narrative as still being relevant and possible within the delivery of modern warfare. This will be proven by substituting the Bats for the new technological assets: MAVs, which when deployed would give a modern force, like the RAF, a viable tactical equaliser and advantage within wider strategic operations.

Project X-ray principles of tactical swarm-based aerial attack have possible relevance within historic, present-day, and future western military operations due to two distinct and transcending reasons. The first is the current evolving development and procurement of military platforms and assets, which are now gravitating towards small, smart, and cheap technology that encompasses the ability to deploy in swarm formations. This ability includes overpowering your enemy within all areas through greater aerial deployments while retaining a cheaper overall financial outlay. The second reason is the potential future opportunity to reduce the amount of military and civilian deaths caused by historic and currently deployed air operations. Below we will explore these two reasons in depth while answering if aspects of Adams’ idea could be implemented within future UK warfare scenarios by using the vast range of MAV technology available and placing them in historical conflict case studies, which will position how they will affect future air-centric operations globally.

As a platform, MAVs are a small remotely, or autonomous air-asset. Typically, they exist in three size classifications; small, medium, and large. This article focusses on small and medium-sized MAVs. Small MAVs, which the US Department of Defense defines as being 20lbs or lighter, are typically hand sized, like the U.S ‘Cicada,’ which is a Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft used for carrying out undetected missions in remote battlefields.[5] Medium MAVs are typically ‘dinner-plate’ sized like the ‘Quad,’ ‘Hexa’ or ‘Octo’ copters, currently used by UK police forces for surveillance operations within the airspace of airports like the ‘Aeryon-Skyranger’ drone.[6] There are also large MAVs like the ‘Harpey’ Drone, which is currently used by the Chinese military and has a nine-foot wingspan and 32 Kilogram warhead payload that is guided by radar, can loiter in the air and can deploy with 17 others systems from a single five-ton truck.[7]

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The US Navy’s “CICADA” drone program is producing lightweight disposable glider drones for field missions. (Source: US Naval Research Laboratory)

This article will start where the Bats ended. Although the aforementioned ‘Project X-Ray’ was not implemented operationally during the Second World War, its premise – to inflict regional mass damage to Japanese cities without mass fatalities – is a tactic that is still desired today by the majority western militaries and governments. The Cicada as an individual platform has the same tactical properties and potential as Adams’ Bats in that they can be deployed en-masse, equipped with small thermobaric NANO munitions, which could easily perform the small kinetic solution positioned during the Project’s design stage, and are also more importantly incredibly small. The potential capability of this MAV within a swarm configuration has already been adopted again by the US Air Force (USAF) when it deployed ‘Tempest’ tactical balloons at high altitude. These then released medium Tempest MAVs who during mid-flight then distributed smaller Cicadas MAVs en-masse (again all at high altitude) to collect environmental data.[8] A more warfare centric illustration of Cicada’s possible capability was demonstrated during the recent deployment of 103 ‘Perdix’ MAVs from an American F/A-18 fighter jet, which once deployed (mid-air) flew to three different target locations and simulated a swarm attack scenario on each designated enemy position. A Chinese civilian corporation who specialises in MAV development had also illustrated this possible small-MAV swarm scenario when it deployed 67 MAV’s simultaneously which performed a ‘saturation’ attack on an enemy anti-aircraft battery, subsequently neutralising the anti-air threat. The U.S Navy has also recently reinforced the effectiveness of mass MAV strategy when it deployed 8 LOCUST (medium) MAVs simultaneously towards one Aegis-class destroyer warship (the most effective global air-defence system currently available).[9] This exercise resulted in 2.8 of the 8 MAVs penetrating the ships defence system, causing subsequent damage and the conclusion that if this deployment were increased by 10 or a 100, the consequences would be more devastating, proving that smaller, smarter and more lethal technologies are the future of air-centric warfare.

The potential benefits of these attacks can be dissected further. The Bat inspired slow-burn-combustion Cicada MAV attack would, as Adams conceived initially, cause the necessary damage to enemy territory, buildings, and infrastructure while reducing the human-centric ‘collateral damage.’ This reduction in lives taken by this type of operation (if appropriately deployed) would achieve its aim by allowing the residing population the choice to flee their residencies and disperse the area, therefore allowing a secondary larger tactical air-strike to occur on key infrastructure targets like nuclear reactors, power stations and government/military buildings. If civilian dispersal was not forthcoming then maybe using MAVs to deploy dispersal gas, or even recorded PA warnings played through speakers on the MAV’s could be utilised. The former ability already exists and was demonstrated by the Skunk MAV, which were bought by a South African Mining company which deployed 25 of these (medium) multi-rotor MAVs to quell potential protester uprisings. Skunks have four barrels which fire pepper-spray or paintball rounds at protesters. Less potent aerosols could potentially be designed to encourage the necessary civilian movement and dispersal passively.

This above mentioned strategy would in the first instance reduce the mass-death scenario created from current air-strike strategies, and also decrease the erosion of a state’s global-moral currency, a process which was demonstrated when the US disclosed 116 innocent civilians were killed through its UAV centred strategy in Afghanistan in 2016, and in response culminated in extensive global condemnation.[10] The erosion of a state’s moral-currency is not outwardly/globally post-strike, it is also internally eroding within the conflict itself as air-strikes can have an extensive degrading effect on the local population, which has historically been the catalyst for the worlds emerging and multiplying insurgencies in Middle Eastern conflicts.[11]

It Always Comes Down to Money!

From a fiscal perspective using small MAVs as weapons could also be highly beneficial in future tactical strikes. MAVs as a platform can now be designed and created using additive 3-D printing. Within the West geographically, 3D printing has already transcended into the world of MAVs through pioneers such as Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University of Southampton University, who, through 3-D printing, produced a drone with a five-foot wingspan. This process has further expanded globally through the online ‘Maker movement’ which shares 3D drone designs and do-it-yourself guides for anybody who wishes to construct a Drone. Ang Cui, a Columbia University PhD, also has a ‘Drones at home’ blog with step-by-step instructions for would-be drone makers to follow. The first commercial and military MAV produced at scale through 3D printing was the small ‘Razor’ drone, which is not only highly effective but can be printed in one day in the US for $550 there are also cheaper variants which cost $9 per unit.[12]

The Razor’s wingspan of forty inches, cruise potential of 45mph and a flight capability of forty minutes comes in complete form for $2,000, and its production company MITRE believe future projects will arrive under $1,000, or cheaper as the MAV market expands.[13] Further evolutions include Voxel8 a 3D electronic printing company whose $8,999 3-D printer can print an operational drone with electronics and engine included.[14]

Commercial American companies have also illustrated the MAV mass production potential of 3D technology, such as United Postal Service (UPS) who have established a factory with 100 3-D printers, which accepts orders, prints them, allocates a price, and then ships them the same day. Furthermore, UPS plan to increase its plant size to 1000 printers to support major production runs.[15] China has also recognised the benefits of embracing civilian technological advancement to improve military procurement. The expansion of 3D printing within China’s commercial sector has recently empowered its military to evolve its procurement of warfare assets and platforms effectively. This was demonstrated to observing media by the Chinese Army who repaired a broken military class oil-truck in an austere battlefield environment using only a single 3D additive manufacturing machine. This process allowed the crew to replicate and replace the unserviceable components both on-site and within a short period.[16] Furthermore, this demonstration revealed the ease, skill, convenience and reliance China places on 3D printing, which in this instance prevented them experiencing routine operational issues like losing their re-fuelling capability, the requirement for a truck recovery team to deploy and the need to wait for an expensive part from a geographically distant manufacturer to arrive. A final and more strategic advantage this 3-D process has provided is removing China’s potential reliance on global commercial industry to provide these technical parts en-masse as the US does within its own present-day military procurement cycles.

Not only does 3D printing provide numerous tactical and speed efficiencies, but it could also, if correctly exploited, arrive at an incredibly cheaper cost financially. Using the Razor as an example, it currently costs $2000 per individual platform (complete). Therefore, a smaller Cicada MAV would arrive if produced within the same process at $250 or cheaper due to its smaller size, reduction of material required and after necessary production efficiency has been achieved.[17] Once assembled, if a small incendiary were then attached at an estimated cost of $200, it would make the platform an incredibly cheap and deadly weapon. This overall manufacture-to-deployment financial pathway compares favourably to the recently released UK Ministry of Defence figures that an average Tornado aircraft operational flight costs £35,000-per hour. This figure, when plugged into an operational scenario, creates the following financial outlay; two Tornados performing a six-hour (one stop) strike operation carrying four Paveway bombs (£22,000) and two Brimstone missiles (£105,000) would cost on average £1 Million. If the Paveway munitions were later exchanged for the Storm-Shadow munition variant (£800,000), the cost would increase exponentially.[18] This price, even without the latter munition, would allow you to purchase 2,000 Cicada’s with the ability to be dropped from a more fiscal efficient platform and would then as a swarm fly straight to the target area with a potential kill radius of 2 metres per MAV depending on incendiary attached. This type of attack would reduce the possibility of human collateral damage, firstly from a surface-to-air threat to the pilot and innocents on the ground exposed to the aerial kill-chain, while giving the swarm operator the ability to increase or decrease the swarm size depending on the amount of damage desired or required. The financial benefits continue to expand in favour of small MAVs when they are compared to rival high-technology air platforms like the fifth generation F-35. Using the previous larger Razor MAV as an example; it costs $2,000 per fully functioning drone, which when compared to the cost of 16 F-35s would allow you to purchase for the same price one million Razors. If the F-35s and these Razors were then deployed against each other in active hostile deployments, the Razors would retain the tactical potential if designed correctly to swarm the 16 F-35s, destroying them, even without incendiaries, through intended foreign object debris damage. Therefore, eradicating the superiority that the F-35 previously held. Of course, scenarios, testing and system advancement would dictate these hypothetical scenarios, however as all the scenarios suggest there is a new dimension in modern warfare and it is the MAV.

Sergeant Lee Tomàs is a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Royal Air Force. In a 13-year career in the RAF, he has deployed to the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Oman, and Cyprus. He holds a Post Graduate Certificate from Brighton University, an MA from Staffordshire University, and an MA from Kings College London. He runs a political online blog and lecture series at RAF stations which tries to develop junior Ranks knowledge of current affairs. In 2017, he won the prestigious CAS ‘Fellow of the Year’ award.

Header Image: A Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle flies over a simulated combat area during an operational test flight, c. 2006.

[1] Steve Connor, ‘The Core of truth behind Sir Isaac Newton’s Apple,’ The Independent, 18 January 2010.

[2] Alexis C. Madrigal, ‘Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II,’ The Atlantic, 14 April 2011.

[3] David Hambling, Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World (London: Archangel Ink, 2015).

[4] Madrigal, ‘Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II.’

[5]  Sarah Kreps, Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016); Anon, ‘U.S. military hopes to enlist tiny, durable Cicada mini-drone,’ The Japan Times.

[6]  Anon, ‘UK Police ‘Skyranger’ Drones to patrol skies above Gatwick airport after major disasters,’ The Huffington Post, 13 March 2014.

[7] John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, Drone Warfare (London: Polity Press, 2014), p. 49.

[8]  Ibid, pp. 8-9.

[9] David Hambling, ‘U.S. Navy Plans to Fly First Drone Swarm This Summer’, Military.com, 4 January 2016.

[10] Spencer Ackerman, ‘Obama claims US drone strikes have killed up to 116 civilians,’ The Guardian, 2 July 2016.

[11] Jason Berry, ‘Inside Americas Drone War, a moral Black Box,’ PRI, 26 September 2012.

[12] T.X. Hammes, ‘The Future of Warfare: Small, Many, Smart vs. Few & Exquisite?,’ War on the Rocks, 16 July 2014.

[13] Hambling, Swarm Troopers, pp. 109-10.

[14] Dario Borghino, ‘Voxel8 paves the way for 3D-printed Electronics,’ New Atlas, 14 January 2015.

[15] Eddie Krassenstein, ‘Cloud-DDM-factory with 100 (eventually 1000) 3D printers & just 3 employees’ open’s at UPS’s Worldwide Hub,’ 3DPrint.com, 4 May 2015.

[16] Simon, ‘Chinese military begins using part production library for 3D printing replacement parts in the field,’ 3ders.org, 12 August 2015.

[17] Mariella Moon, ‘Watch how the Navy plans to deploy its tiny Cicada drones,’ Engadget, 22 May 2015.

[18] Alistair Bunkall, ‘How Much Will Airstrikes on IS Cost Taxpayer?,’ SKY News, 26 September 2014.

One thought on “From ‘Bats to MAVs’: The Concept is Clear, ‘Small’ is the Future of Aerial Warfare

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