The Royal Air Force’s new squadron of “network-enabled swarm drones” may not be ready by the end of 2019, despite Gavin Williamson’s claim that they will be. 

In his speech, Williamson said “we expect to see these [drones] ready to be deployed by the end of this year”.

Many cast doubt on this claim early on, with Ulrike Franke, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, highlighting that drone programs historically take far longer to enter service. 

When asked about the new drones, the MoD told us that “the details of who will build the drones, the tender process and the technology which will be employed, will be developed over the 3-year programme“. 

The statement implies the programme is still in the very early stages, with the build plan and the technology the drone will use still yet to be decided. The statement also confirms it will be built under a tender process; a competition will be opened to industry partners to apply for the contract.

Some have even suggested therefore that 3 years is optimistic – there’s some doubt as to whether the technology for ‘networked swarming’ is currently ready.

Fundamentally therefore, “deployed by the end of this year” would appear to be deeply optimistic. But moreover, the MoD’s plan for the drones’ procurement directly conflicts Gavin Williamson’s plan.


The full response from the Ministry of Defence can be found below.

Question: Regarding the “swarm squadrons of network enabled drones” – who will these be built by?

  1. Will the process be completive?
  2. Is there existing technology or will JFC innovation be needed?

Answer: “The RAF will form a new squadron with a new concept, able to deploy swarms of network-enabled drones. The details of who will build the drones, the tender process and the technology which will be employed, will be developed over the 3-year programme”.

 

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Stephen

We should develop these drones ourselves, it is a great opportunity for exports.

Julian

I agree. Drones of various sizes should be a big opportunity for U.K. industry. We are world-class in the satellite industry which gives us world-class expertise in compact and resilient onboard control systems, we’re huge in formula 1 car manufacturing (world-class aerodynamics and materials science and other aspects of that sort of engineering) and then there’s our world-class engine manufacturers. Between that lot we’ve got most of it covered. Oh, and control/AI software plus cryptography for the secure data links as well.

Stephen

I agree, we should also make an inexpensive reconnaissance drone version, I think there is a lot of demand on the World market for such a thing.

This part of today’s announcement is becoming intriguing. Have the MOD kept something up their sleeve which no one is aware of, planning to actually build a Taranis style larger drone, or will we be disappointed and get a dozen quadcopters from Toys r us? I’m still not sure, but could be exciting. I just hope today is the start of something big, with further ambitious announcements made and backed by some extra funding. We are so close to being in a position of either regenerating or destroying both our ship building and aeronautical industries, it all comes down to… Read more »

David

Wouldn’t it be a better idea to mass produce hundreds of cheap small drones with a similar radar section of an F35. The drone needs to be cheaper than an S400 missile methinks!

Steve

The challenge is two fold, firstly how do you get enough fuel into a small cheap drone, to enable it to be launched from the range that is needed (100 miles plus) and how do you ensure that they cant just be jammed and therefore made useless. Ok cheap is a relative term in military terms but I assume they would need to be in the under £10k range to make them viable.

Meiron X

Range is of issue to drones, , smaller fuel capacity then full size aircraft.

Great news all round, dead impressed with Williamson’s complete reversal of MoD fortunes.

Shouldn’t this kind of news have been in the MDP instead of released all in one go at some innocuous conference?

Steven Kirkland

Really liking Mr Williamson’s endeavour, will and drive in effecting change within the Forces and safety of our nation. He’s becoming a national treasure without the acknowledgement and limelight. Our strategy it seems is adapt once striked upon, the result,,, we learn, grow and strike back. The future for our armed forces is to be at the forefront of electromagnetic technology, the foot prints we leave physically and electronically, to be always a step ahead of the enemy. I personally feel security should be beefed up around the UK and particularly around places of real importance. The Chinese and Russians… Read more »

Martin

The reason this was not in the MDP is much the same reason our new bases were not in it. Williams is just making it up and the TOP brass are playing along. The UK has chosen to purchase foreign drones on three occasions. There is no secret drone program out there and there is no Budget to fund one. Williams talks about off the shelf purchase but there is no off the shelf option, even the US is only starting development of such things. This is a grown adult man who keeps a spider in his room because he… Read more »

Steve

I think your on to something on with the MALD. Looking at the Wikipedia artical and the MOD expressed an interest to buy them a few years back, so this could just be the confirmation of that.

DaveyB

Not completely true. There has been a program running for the last ten years within the MOD science branch (Dstl) and Qinetiq with investigating and developing swarm technology. Granted this was initially used on “cheaper” quad style drones but has progressed up to controlling the fixed wing desert hawk flying as part of a large swarm. Yes, its very slow compared what is required, but it does prove the concept of providing mutual situational positioning and data sharing between the aircraft. This is one of the key areas of investigation, basically making sure that a swarm can fly together without… Read more »

R cummings

We are already buying 20 Protectors, which is the long-range, heavier, faster version of the MQ-9 Reaper. They were announced under Cameron but won’t be delivered until something like 2023. They have a SEAD capability, which should mean they are able to penetrate enemy air defences and destroy S400s and the like. AFAIK, this is the only western UCAV that can currently/potentially do so. Smaller, slower drones would be shot out of the sky the moment they got inside enemy radar range and, even if some weren’t, their weapons payload is too limited to do serious damage. I thought the… Read more »

BB85

Israel use cheap drones precisely to be targeted and shot down by enemy radar, thus giving away their position. The radar sites are then targeted with stand off missiles from F16’s etc. For that reason I see a good purpose of cheap UAV’s

R cummings

For ‘Predator’ in 3rd para, read ‘Protector’

Could be a point, if the Predators are being replaced with Protector, could they be reusing the Predator airframes and adding in a networked capability?

captain P Wash.

T.S I’m thinking that too.

I just can’t get my head round what’s being proposed here. Reading through the news articles on it, some are saying they are to partner our F35’s which would mean a drone capable of range speed and agility to match, which surely prescribes something akin to Tempest. But the stated budget is £8 million, which will mean cheap and small, but how would they integrate with a strike fighter?

Sorry, Taranis not Tempest lol.

Martin

Protector is just a longer range version of reaper which is a bigger predator. All three are big slow propellor planes and would be slaughtered by even a basic air defence much less S400. Williams is pitching something very like DARPA’s Gremlins drones which is only at study phase at the moment. Taranis is still technically in the joint Anglo French UCAV study and a decade away from any kind of development, it does not sound like what is being proposed. The MOD was interested in MALD V which was a modular version of MALD that was cancelled however the… Read more »

Rfn_Weston

My two penneth… The term swarm suggests numbers. It also suggests small in size. I imagine large numbers of affordable drones with an increased RCS to light up enemy air defence radars and saturate them with information to confuse the tactical picture. This should allow F35 with its lower RCS to potentially slip through the net more easily and carry out first strikes etc… I do not expect at all for these drones to be armed. More of a sacrificial lamb. The price should be low enough to allow the expectation and intention to lose numbers to deplete SAM missile… Read more »

Martin

You have basically described the latest MALD capability other than the supersonic speed. They start at US$ 70,000 each but the jamming capability and sensors can go up to several hundred thousand.

Rfn_Weston

Didn’t know about this program! Makes total sense – what DW has suggested must be in this vein surely?

Martin

Great, this looks to be it then. We should buy these off the shelf and learn from them, then build these capabilities into our own Spear 3 missile and have something we can export.

Steve R

Drone speeds might not need to match the F35s. They could be sent out ahead in advance and the F35 catches up with them as they’re playing decoy for enemy air defences. They slip through as the cheap drones occupy enemy radar and missiles.

Once that networking and control is perfected then it can be applied to faster, more powerful UCAVs like Taranis.

Spyinthesky

My thoughts entirely. I think the first iteration of this will be quite simple, more a text programme and something more capable developed based on a couple years of experience at the squadron level GW refers to. This is going to have to develop through trial and error and committing to a very sophisticated solution now would almost certainly prove to be a dead end with bins full of wasted cash at the end.

Reminds me of the 1957 white paper.

cruise missile that releases hundreds of small battery powered drones inflight that emit RF or heat/IR signals to overwhelm radars and AD missiles would be the easiest cheapest solution, wouldn’t need to have specific targeting data just disperse over a wide enough area to cause confusion while the real firepower finds a target

Nigel Collins
R cummings

‘Israel use cheap drones precisely to be targeted and shot down by enemy radar, thus giving away their position. The radar sites are then targeted with stand off missiles from F16’s etc. For that reason I see a good purpose of cheap UAV’s’ Israel is operating on a pretty small battlefield, flying drones to Damascus, Lebanon, Sinai etc is like flying from London to Birmingham or, at a stretch, Liverpool! Any low-cost, light drone can do that. We are not in that position: the only likely target for a British/NATO swarm attack would be a sophisticated air defence system, which… Read more »

Spyinthesky

Having seen the Trouble the Kurds had shooting down simple slow ISIS drones with small arms fire I am not convinced of your confidence in the short term. Surely it’s why there is a rush in The US in particular to develop laser weapons on trucks to be a leg to deal with them. Surely these drones would be flying at medium to high level for the most part and I think they can cause an aweful lot of confusion and missile wastage no matter how sophisticated the defence system is on paper. It’s going to be cat and mouse… Read more »

Davey

We in the UK have been developing swarm technology for the last twenty years. There are two main players Qinetiq and Dstl who have both being investigating how a swarm can fly with mutual spatial awareness and data sharing. They did use cheap quad copters to prove the technology and have since moved on using Desert Hawks. The desert hawk is a cheap fixed wing uav (small/slow) that can carry IR/EO cameras, synthetic aperture radar or a laser designator. The technology allows the “swarm” to be outfitted with a multiple arrangement of sensors that can either fly in close formation… Read more »

DaveyB

This is officially the first step of replacing manned fighter aircraft in the UK. It was muted since the early 50’s that manned combat aircraft days were numbered. At present Qinetiq, BAE and Dstl have been investigating adding swarm technology to unmanned aircraft. This started off by controlling groups of simple quad copters, which led to the grouping together of Desert Hawks. Which is a small cheap hand launched fixed wing reconnaissance platform, that can carry either EO cameras, IR sensors, synthetic aperture radar or a laser designator. By combining a group of four or more allows the swarm package… Read more »

Glass Half Full

Davey, I think you (and others) are going in the wrong direction with the high end, expensive solutions, at least as far as any drone swarm initiative. SPEAR 3 is to all intents and purposes a drone that could replicate and perhaps exceed MALD capabilities and be efficiently air launched from F35B, Typhoon and perhaps other platforms in sufficient numbers to be characterized as a swarm. SPEAR 3 uses the same jet engine as MALD allowing high sub-sonic speed down to loitering speed if desired, with a range in the many 100’s of kilometres. It has 2-way datalink for control.… Read more »

DaveyB

Hi Glass Half Full, I do agree with your view, however I do believe we will be getting something more than a MALD/Delilah missile. As I said earlier the mutual spacial awareness and mutual datalinking can be easily integrated into a Tomahawk/Storm Shadow or SPEAR 3 airframe. The Israelis have proved hove good the multi-function Delilah is. The air strikes against the Russian/Syrian Pantsir S1 is probably a very good example. The latest example showed the Pantsir launch at least two SAMs at the approaching missile, then suddenly veer off. This is indicative of some very serious jamming. The video… Read more »

Fascinating reading DaveyB. Thank you.

Glass Half Full

Perhaps we are discussing at least two solutions with different goals/capabilities? For example a SPEAR 3 based anti-IAD drone solution might be £250-500k per unit, controllable weapon/intelligence/decoy disposable solution. Kratos Valkyrie is a controllable, reusable platform, that actually carries other weapons such as the Small Diameter Bomb or SPEAR 3 class munitions. So Valkyrie is several levels above SPEAR 3, MALD, Gray Wolf solutions in terms of mission capabilities with a commensurate price tag. Considering the specs we’ll be lucky to get Valkyrie for less than £2M per, based on the Mako UTAP-22 FlightGlobal data and other articles https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/kratos-mako-drone-approved-for-sale-to-foreign-mili-446822/ Both… Read more »