By functioning as a coordinated group using integrated guidance, sensing, and autonomy systems – and without hands-on human intervention – these weapons use speed, accuracy, menacing persistence, and strategic lethality to disrupt and overcome even larger adversaries with more powerful weapons.

While swarm munition specifications vary, all swarm munitions share the following commonalities:

  • A relatively small and inexpensive weapons platform.
  • Built-in seeker and guidance systems to reach and attack the target.
  • A coordination mechanism, such as a radio or sensors, that can localize where other members of the swarm are and (either explicitly or implicitly) determine what role those other devices are currently filling and adjust appropriately.
  • Autonomy algorithms to process input from sensors, reason over mission objectives, and coordinate actions.

In military weapons systems, defining features of a swarm include:

  • Overwhelming Numbers. Utilizing munition or swarm weapon quantities large enough to overwhelm an enemy target. This can be done by either overloading the target’s defenses – giving them too many weapons coming from too many directions to defend against, all at the same time – or by combining cumulative smaller actions that together add up to some larger result.
  • Resilience. Having the ability to still attack effectively even when the swarm is cut off from the world outside, such as when communication or GPS signals are blocked or interrupted for any reason. The same is true if a percentage of the swarm is lost during the battle. A resilient swarm keeps the battle going whether there is an expectation that either friendly forces will break through or, if not, with the understanding that it is better to sacrifice drones and munitions than to lose human soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines.

Swarm Munitions vs. Swarm Weapons

The term “Swarm Munitions” is a subset of the “Swarm Weapons” category. They both are used for the purpose of swarming targets, but munitions such as a bomb or missile will self-destruct upon impact or detonation. Weapons can either be munitions that self-destruct or they can be a platform, like an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or drone), that swarm its targets while firing munitions then returns to a pre-set location for reloading, if it is not destroyed.

Do Swarm Munitions swarm like insects?

They may look similar while in motion at times, but an insect swarm is an example of what is called “emergent behavior,” where you can only predict or assess an action based on what the entire group does in its mission, not by the actions of individual members of the swarm. In fact, the insect swarm depends on each individual to only move in coordination with the others and not move independently.

Swarm Munitions are different because each member of the swarm can be programmed to carry out a different role in the collective mission. So, while the movement may at first appear to all act as one, individual munitions in the swarm can be programmed to, for example, suddenly separate from the group and attack a different target or take some other action. This can be useful in building up enemy expectations in one direction, then suddenly shifting them to a new target before the enemy can defend against the new action. Having this and other capabilities requires each individual weapon to be a networked, collaborative “smart” weapon – whether it’s a munition or a platform – to assure accurate, timely interactions and delivery of lethal payloads. Also, smart weapons can be comprised of several very different platforms and munitions, like integrating bombs or missiles with a group of unmanned drones, to create a specialized, multi-faceted tactical “swarm.” These are known as heterogeneous collaborative (CW) weapons systems, but are simply not possible using non-networked “dumb” munitions.

Who uses Swarm Weapons?

Militaries worldwide have been increasing their swarm weapons capabilities, with a focus on drone swarms. Reportedly, countries from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Chile, China, France, India, and Iraq to Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the U.K., the U.S., and more – as well as non-state groups like ISIS – all have swarming weapons programs. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has drone swarm programs in each military branch and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is currently testing the world’s most advanced swarming munitions system in their Golden Horde program.

Related Topics to Explore

Artificial Intelligence (AI) • Autonomous Control and Decision Systems • Autonomous Systems • Disruptive Technologies • Drone Swarms • Golden Horde Swarming Munitions • Intelligent Weapons • Machine Learning (ML) • Near Peer Missile Pivot • Networked Collaborative and Autonomous (NCA) Weapons • Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) • U.S. Threat Systems Management Office • Weapons Seekers

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