6 Ways to Defeat the Coming Robot Army Swarms

Phalanx Weapon System by EumenesOfCardia

For every new weapon there’s an often unexpected move made to counter it. You develop a rock, I develop a shield. You develop a castle, I develop a cannon. You develop a knight in shining armor, I develop a long bow. You develop nukes and I go MAD. You develop a hacker army, I corrupt technology.

You develop a swarming robot army, what do I do?

To answer that question Paul Scharre over on the War on the Rocks blog has written a mesmerizing 6 part series of articles on robotic swarm warfare (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Counter-Swarm: A Guide to Defeating Robotic Swarms).

But first, let’s set up the fear part of the article.

War Has Gone Open-Source

Long ago war moved on from two well regulated armies standing toe-to-toe firing repeated volleys with inaccurate weapons. And it only seems like a long time ago that war moved on from great well regulated nation states mustering recognizable armies into battle. No, the new face of warfare as we have seen in recent years looks very different.

For more background to appreciate the changing face of warfare you might want to read John Robb and his Global Guerrillas blog. And his book: Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization.

The TLDR of it is that warfare has gone open-source: small, autonomous groups can work together—without a formal means of coordination—to conduct warfare.

Drones are Everywhere and they are Bad Ass

Drones are and have been the most likely next move in warfare. We have Drones over Paris, drones over the White House, drones carrying drugs, drones delivering trinkets, drones protecting borders, drones killing some terrorists, drones looking at you naked, drones hacking your wifi and cell calls, drones on the ocean, and fast new 3D printing processes that will be able to print new drone armies on demand at scale. You get the picture.

Swarm Tactics Work

To see the disruptive value of swarms in warfare we only have to go back to 2002, the Millennium Challenge. As any tech person knows any system is designed to certain specs. Exceed those specs and your warranty is void. What are the specs of a US naval battle fleet and what if you exceed them?

That’s what Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper found out when he used swarm tactics in the Millennium Challenge, a famous Pentagon war game. During the game an aircraft carrier and half the American fleet were virtually sunk by concentrating every cruise missile onto a single target. He DDoSed the fleet.

Very little in the world today is able to defends itself against swarm attacks. Until recently it simply was not possible to apply that much coordinated mass.

The story gets very interesting after this failure. The boats were refloated and the rules changed to make sure the right side won. Lieutenant General Riper resigned, “warning the Bush administration that it had no clue how to deal with the modern world.” But that's another story.

How do we defeat the swarms?

Here’s the part of article where I try to soothe your fears.

Paul Scharre in Counter-Swarm: A Guide to Defeating Robotic Swarms has several swarm management techniques:

Low cost-per-shot weapons. You can’t defeat swarms with the traditional large expensive missiles meant to take down planes or ships at sea. The economics of a swarm require you to deploy cheaper weapons or you will soon be bled dry. Lasers, electromagnetic rail guns, and even machine guns could offer cheap enough ammo to target swarms.

Counter-swarm. Swarm on swarm tactics. Fight an attacking swarm with a killer defending swarm. With cheap enough technology this can be cost effective. Look for deep learning to be big here.

High-powered microwaves. Currently high-powered microwaves have limited range, but the idea is take out the entire entire swarm with with electromagnetic energy, either  disrupting or destroying electronics.

Collapse the Swarm. Jam communications so the swarm can no longer act as coordinated unit.

Trap the Swarm. Employ a little swarm jujitsu. Use the nature of the swarm against it. Move the swarm into a disadvantageous position so that it can’t fight to its full capabilities. This would give your swarm a better chance to defeat it.

Hijack the Swarm. This is the alpha geek strategy. Swarms are digital creatures and like anything digital they are open to subversion. So just hack the swarm and take it over. Turn it into your own zombie army. All the hijacking techniques currently about in the world are available to attack a swarm. For more information on hijacking take a look at the frightening book Future Crimes.

So have your fears been soothed away? I didn’t think so.

There’s much more delicious detail in Paul’s article. It’s a fascinating topic in a fascinating time. Look for new drone fighting leagues to form up soon.