Military and Police

Drone Swarms From China – A Threat to National Security?

“Wise warns that hundreds or even thousands of drones could swarm American naval ships and that the Chinese could use the drones to expedite control of disputed islands or vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea.”

Prognostication is always tough, but fear mongering seems to earn more clicks. Douglas Wise, the former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency is the latest to offer a voice of caution.

He points out that China is actively trying to close the gap in drone technology between it and the US. While the Chinese communication network used to support drones is less advanced than that of the US, they have the advantage of using drones on a regional instead of a global basis. Wise warns that hundreds or even thousands of drones could swarm American naval ships and that the Chinese could use the drones to expedite control of disputed islands or vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea. The real challenge for readers becomes how to assess the challenge posed by this threat.

Most news articles tend to focus on the threats, but not a realistic assessment of their use in combat. In this case it’s important to consider historical trends in new technology. Throughout history there have been many technologies that were supposed game changers. For example, when torpedo boats were introduced in the early 20th century, they were thought to make battleships obsolete. But with a few changes, such as search lights, netting, readjusting the armor, and new escort ships called torpedo boat destroyers, the battleship continued to dominate the seas for decades.

Despite the fearful, click-bait titles, the US is well aware of the threat, and with modest adjustments the carrier will remain dominant on the battlefield.

During the Egypt-Israeli war Israeli tanks faced horrific casualties from new shoulder firing rockets. Pundits declared this a new game changing technology. But the Israeli tanks were operating in ad hoc campaigns without proper fire and infantry support; when they fixed those problems the tanks remained the king of the battlefield.

Presently, the carrier has supplanted the battleship and now it faces continued cries that the game has changed. Because of tight budget and expensive carriers, as well as China’s so called anti-access area denial (A2AD) threat, analysts argue that carriers should be smaller, more limited, and prepared for overwhelming swarms of hyper sonic missiles, carrier killing batteries, and now drone swarms that make them obsolete.

Despite the fearful, click-bait titles, the US is well aware of the threat, and with modest adjustments the carrier will remain dominant on the battlefield. The US already has multiple layers of defense established on carriers since missiles were invented in World War II, and they have continually improved upon them. Some of these improvements are upgraded radar on Aegis missile defense ships, and the F35’s advanced sensors that can network with other fighters.

New technologies must be reported on and assessed. But they must also be compared to advancements in counter measures and judged by the yardstick of history.

The US fielded anti-drone technology as early as 2012, and in 2014 they called for upgrades to their current systems. The military already faced drones in the fight for Mosul, and they used handheld technology that shoots a disruptive pulse, combined with direct fire from Iraqis to destroy the explosive carrying drones. Just this year the navy successful tested anti-drone lasers on drones used by China (they also want to make this another layer of missile defense), and Lockheed Martin recently signed a contract to develop state of the art anti-drone technology.

New technologies must be reported on and assessed. But they must also be compared to advancements in counter measures and judged by the yardstick of history. The Chinese reliance on missiles or possibly drones is concerning. But it’s just the latest in the long line of technologies that supposedly dethrone the carrier, tank, or battleship, but which turn out to only require a few simple modifications to the existing technology to keep it relevant. The US has already done that on the battlefield, and I expect they are technologically prepared for Chinese swarms.

Morgan Deane

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming book Decisive Battles in Chinese history, as well as Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

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