A significant upward trend on the graph marks the usage of drones across various stages of military operations. From pre-operation stages involving surveillance and reconnaissance to becoming integral components or contributors to the swift execution of the Kill Chain, drones play a crucial role. The Chinese military is making substantial investments to integrate drones seamlessly into their force deployment. Advancements in swarming technologies, coupled with the convergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and 5G, indicate that drone usage is poised to substantially impact outcomes in both actively operational and simmering zones.
Technological reforms in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have ushered in an era of integration of weapons systems with new technologies and modular capabilities. Doctrinally, too, the PLA is adapting to new, collaborative and multi-domain techniques for fighting wars. One of the techniques that the PLA is now increasingly working with is drone swarming, which encompasses synchronisation and coordinated operation of multiple drones for the purpose of achieving a single objective.
As per the 2020 Science of Military Strategy issued by China’s Academy of Military Sciences, unmanned aerial systems such as drones should be the primary field for developing “intelligent,” Artificial Intelligence-enabled systems. One of the key features of AI-integrated drones is their ability to coordinate with other drones and perform collaborative tasks autonomously. Even though China has not yet mastered this technique in the military sphere, China’s doctrinal emphasis on ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ and the strides achieved in civilian drones by Chinese firms such as EHang point to a potential pathway for a breakthrough.
Moreover, Chinese military strategists have been studying global developments in drone swarming to understand precisely the nature of the requirement. For example, in 2021, Chinese military media 81.cn published a report on “Autonomous Propulsion Force 4.0,” a British Royal Navy programme for experimenting with swarms of drones in the air and at sea. Similarly, Sina’s 2023 Military UAV Industry In-depth report encourages the Chinese military apparatus to take lessons on UAV swarming from the ‘Five Priorities for the Air Force’s Future Combat Air Force’ document published by the US Army. The same report also studies how individually operated drones have been swarmed to overwhelm a target in Syria and the Russia-Ukraine War.
China’s Demonstrated Capabilities
In 2016, the night sky in Guangzhou city in China’s Guangdong province lit up as 1,000 drones (EHang Ghostdrone 2.0 UAVs) were flown to celebrate the Lantern Festival. This display set a new Guinness World Record, breaking Intel’s 2016 world record of flying a swarm of 500 drones in Germany. The Chinese private drone manufacturer Guangzhou EHang Intelligent Technology Co. Ltd’ was responsible for this feat. Then, in December 2017, EHang flew a swarm of 1,180 illuminated drones in Guangzhou during the Fortune Global Forum. And again in 2018, to beat another world record set by a swarm of 1,218 drones flown by Intel, EHang displayed a swarm of 1,374 drones in Xi’an during a Labour Day show. Utilizing AI/ Machine Learning in these demonstrations is evident from the fact that drones unable to perform their functions or stay in sync in these collective formations executed their landing.
EHang’s exhibitions comprise the largest global displays of swarm/collective intelligence drones and demonstrate China’s unique capabilities in synchronising miniature civilian/ quadcopter UAVs at a large scale. And just as private drone manufacturers and operators such as Jingdong Express and SF Express have been brought into the fold of Military-Civil Fusion to service demands of the PLA in high-altitude areas like Tibet, EHang and its swarming technology, too, can be an active part of the Chinese defence ecosystem. A similar example is that of Zhuhai Ziyan UAV Co. Ltd., which, in 2019, reportedly developed helicopter drones capable of forming an intelligent swarm and launching coordinated attacks.
Other state-owned enterprises already geared towards the military production of drones, such as the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, have also made strides in drone swarming. In May 2018, CETC released a special action plan for ‘A New Generation of Artificial Intelligence’, in which it adopted ‘three directions’ in which the future of AI research and deployment in military equipment is headed: data intelligence, machine intelligence, and swarm intelligence. By 2020, CETC also demonstrated the swarming of 200 fixed-wing drones and released a video that same year claiming to show the successful test of a ‘barrage swarm’ that launched 48 attack drones to overwhelm a target. The latest addition to the CETC arsenal is a swarm drone system, which uses compressed nitrogen energy to launch 48 fixed-wing UAVs that can form autonomous drone swarms simultaneously. The drones can then be deployed as loitering munitions.
All of this considered, the Chinese drone swarming programme hasn’t achieved combat-ready perfection, as multiple challenges potentially plague such a programme. For example, during its 2018 display, EHang reported that it faced difficulties in syncing the drones and cited “external interference” with the GPS mechanisms of 496 drones, indicating that a few drones in a swarm may experience bandwidth and positional lag that may sabotage the swarm system as a whole. It is an issue likely to grow as swarm sizes expand, and establishing fool-proof connectivity and communications mechanisms becomes expensive and skill-intensive. And this is not just exclusive to intra-swarm communications – the relay of information through the data link established between the drone swarm and the control centre on the ground is a hurdle the Chinese have yet not been able to cross.
Moreover, as anti-drone systems progress, electromagnetic interference is being perfected to cover drone swarms in “electromagnetic fog” and disconcert their performance. Perfecting swarming would hence require strong “anti-interference” capabilities. There is also a lack of global standards to learn from what constitutes a true swarm, AI/ML-enabled. As noted from the example of the Russia-Ukraine war, drones can be collectively launched as a swarm. However, they will still have to be remotely piloted until an autonomous capability is achieved.
In the years to come, with the MCF strategy at the base, Chinese enterprises working on military drones will likely continue seeking collaboration with civilian drone manufacturers and exporters to leverage commercial advantage in cutting-edge drone systems and technologies that may not necessarily be available in the military-industrial complex. Moreover, ‘Smart Swarming’ will continue to dominate the Chinese AI-enabled UAV research and development ecosystem.
A major component of this strategy would be integrating some key ‘4IR’ technologies and 5G into military drones, which is expected to be a significant component for machine-to-machine interaction in swarms of drones in the near future. It will invite intensive talent and private-sector participation.
As highlighted above, these endeavours will face multiple hurdles, which Chinese military strategists acknowledge. However, notwithstanding the challenges, China’s robust emphasis on scientific and technological self-reliance carries on in an increasingly unfavourable external environment. Military UAVs will likely become a key weapon of choice for the PLA’s multi-domain, integrated joint operations. They range from deploying 4IR technologies in military UAVs to using swarms and unmanned cluster weapons systems to achieve long-range objectives in a short duration. China has demonstrated its willingness and capacity to invest in wide-ranging unmanned capabilities for the future of warfare.
Anushka Saxena, China Studies Research Analyst with Takshashila’s Indo-Pacific Studies Programme