As evening fell on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in western Syria, the first drones appeared. Then more, until 13 were flashing on radars, speeding towards the airbase and a nearby naval facility.
The explosives-armed aircraft were no trouble for Russian air defences, which shot down seven and jammed the remaining six, according to the country’s defence ministry. But the failed attack in January last year was disturbing to close observers of drone warfare.
“It was the first instance of a mass-drone attack and the highest number of drones that I believe we’ve seen non-state actors use simultaneously in a combat operation,” says Paul Scharre, a defence analyst and author who studies the weaponisation of artificial intelligence.
The attempted attacks continued and in September the Russian army said it had downed nearly 60 drones around the Khmeimim base so far this year.
For now, military drone use is dominated by lightweight surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger attack UAVs. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future: according to defence experts at the information group Jane’s, orders for both types of device are expected to increase dramatically in the decade ahead.
But the assaults on Khmeimim, as well as September’s successful strike on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were early flashes of a possible future for aerial warfare: drone swarming. (end of excerpt)
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