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China will Overwhelm its Enemies with Swarms of Rocket-Armed Heli-Drones, says West Point Graduate

IDRA Founder, Former U.S. Army Captain and West Point Graduate, advocated for tactical drones at Company and Battalion levels - Pentagon didn't see the value


- Michael Peck | The National Interest

China has a history of overwhelming its enemies with sheer numbers of troops.


Now, China may have a modern iteration on that tactic: swarms of tiny rocket-armed helicopter drones that will surround enemy forces like angry bees.


"China's domestically developed helicopter drones carry proximity explosive mortar shells, grenade launchers and machine guns can now form swarms and engage in coordinated strikes," according to Chinese newspaper Global Times, citing a statement by the Guangdong-based Zhuhai Ziyan company, which makes unmanned aerial vehicles. The system was also displayed at a recent Turkish defense trade show.


"With a single push of a button, the drones can autonomously take off, avoiding colliding in the air and finding their way to their designated target," Global Times said. "Once they receive an order to attack, they will engage the target autonomously in a coordinated manner. Upon finishing a mission, the system will lead the drones back to base and land automatically. The operator does not need to expose himself or herself in a dangerous frontline as the drones can easily be controlled remotely."


Up to ten heli-drones can be assembled into a swarm, with Artificial Intelligence guiding and coordinating the group. "The 10 drones can be a combination of different types, including those that can drop proximity explosive mortar shells, while others can carry grenade launchers, or make suicide attacks," said Global Times.


In Spring 2017, International Drone Racing Association (IDRA)'s Founder, Former U.S. Army Captain and West Point Graduate, Justin Haggerty, met with officials from the U.S. Army G-3/5/7, the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Defense Strategies Institute (DSI) to discuss the need to expand the U.S. Army's tactical unmanned aircraft capabilities.


Haggerty advocated for providing new assets, by integrating existent drone technologies in multirotor aircraft with tactical systems, to Combined Arms Battalion Commanders to improve unit flexibility in the Multi-Domain Battlefield. "Tactical flexibility should not stop at the Brigade level," said Justin Haggerty, arguing that it would slow unit mobility and the ability to seize initiatives "as battlefields become more complex and Company commanders become more essential at the decisive point of engagements."


Furthermore, Haggerty highlighted that "unmanned tactical assets would provide units with a new tool to close with and destroy enemy targets, deploy high-angle suppressive fire to improve mobility of armor and infantry, gather additional information to support reconnaissance missions and provide clear data to commanders to make accurate decisions on the battlefield, and implement far-target locators to report enemy locations to call indirect fires from artillery, air, and sea assets."


Pentagon officials from the U.S. Army G-3/5/7 and ARCIC were reluctant to agree with Haggerty's assessment to integrate tactical drones below the brigade level. However, Timothy Chung, team lead for DARPA's Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics, or OFFSET program, agreed with the growing need to integrate tactical drones with ground combat units, especially in urban warfare.


While the United States flirts with drone capabilities for new military assets, China appears to be heavily invested.


Zhuhai Ziyan offers multiple types of armed mini-drones. In 2018, it unveiled the Blowfish A2, which resembles a camel with a rotor stuck into its hump. The six-foot-long, two-foot-high drone has a speed of 130 kilometers (81 miles) per hour. It can be armed with 60-millimeter mortar shells and or a 40-millimeter grenade launcher.


"Other helicopter drones include the Infiltrator, which can launch rockets and missiles, and the Parus S1, which sacrifices itself to blow up the target," Global Times said. Zhuhai Ziyan is now working on the Blowfish A3, slightly larger than the A2 and armed with "multiple types of machine guns and features a different aerodynamic design allowing the gun to shoot at more angles mid-flight."


Zhuhai Ziyan claims to have had "numerous inquiries from multiple foreign companies," suggesting that the company is willing to sell or license its technology.


China is hardly the first nation to explore swarm attacks by small drones. As stated earlier, America's DARPA research agency is working on Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics, or OFFSET, which envisions humans as drone resource managers, using video game-like virtual reality to control formations of hundreds of small unmanned aircraft during urban battles. A 2018 test of DARPA's Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments (CODE) demonstrated how a drone swarm, when communications with its human controllers were disrupted, could still find and strike targets simply by the AI following the intent of the mission plan.


Russia also has experience with drone swarms-but as a target. In 2018, a gaggle of small unmanned aircraft, armed with explosives, were launched by Syrian rebels at a Russian airbase in Syria. Russia claimed to have shot down seven and hijacked their radio links to take control of another six.


What's particularly interested about a Chinese drone swarm is China's predominance in drone production. Chinese manufacturer DJI makes nearly 80 percent of the drones used in the United States and Canada (U.S. authorities with the Department of Homeland Security recently warned these robots could be stealing data from their users). Such a solid manufacturing base puts Beijing in a strong position to build large numbers of small attack drones.


Original article at The National Interest, here.

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