Swarming (military)

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Swarming is a behavior in which autonomous, or semi-autonomous, units of action attack an enemy from several different directions, regroup, and attack again. "Pulsing", where the units shift the point of attack, is a necessary part of swarming. Swarming is not limited to the pure human military realm. The term comes from mistaken perceptions of social insect behavior. Military swarming involves the use of many autonomous forces against an opponent, the attacking forces being highly mobile and in effective communication and being synchronized in time.[1] Historical military forces have used the principles of swarming, but there is now active research in designing military doctrines that consciously draw ideas from swarming. Analysis of some premodern battles are suggestive that swarming took place, but, after close examination, may lack some of the synchronization and coordination that are characteristic of true swarming. True swarming can be synchronized by biological signals in hive insects, or by precise time references such as provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS)

In nature and nonmilitary situations, there are several forms of swarming. Biologically driven forms are often complex adaptive systems, but have no central planning, simple individual rules, and nondeterministic behavior that evolves with -- or fails to evolve with -- the situation.[2]

Current military explores swarming addresses the spectrum of military operations, from strategic through tactical, An expert group evaluated swarming's role in the "revolution in military affairs" or force transformation.[3] They observed that military swarming is primarily tactical, sometimes operational and rarely strategic, and is a complement to other efforts rather than a replacement for them. Swarming is a logical extension of network-centric warfare, but the networks needed to make swarming routine will be available around 2010-2011. At present, the networking for swarming is only available in specific contexts.

Reviewing Swarming and Non-Swarming Conflict

Major differences from swarming in nature include the deliberate triggering of swarming, and continual synchronization both to avoid fratricide and to apply the forces available in the most effective way. Swarming operations may have more local autonomy than in traditional command and control, but there is still coordination. A unit that fails to coordinate becomes a prime candidate for fratricide (i.e., being attacked by its own side) if its own side does not recognize it.

From a military tactical standpoint, there are four basic doctrines, of which swarming is one:

  • swarming
  • chaotic melee
  • brute-force massing
  • nimble maneuver

Melee is unorganized and random fighting, in contrast with the distributed organization of swarming. Examples of melee are tribal warfare, modern gang fighting, World War I dogfights, ancient naval conflict and modern urban warfare. Massing, is organized warfare in which armies use strict structure to have such as large mass they can overwhelm the enemy. Maneuver is similar to mass except that mass is concentrated at a particular point.

Not every converging operation is swarming. "...the phrase “convergent attack” could be stretched to include every case in history in which an army or unit ended up surrounded by the enemy and attacked from all sides during the course of a battle. Encircling and surrounding an enemy has always been a desirable goal: It cuts off the enemy’s supply lines and destroys his morale by cutting off any possible retreat. The distinction is that swarming implies a [intentional, planned] convergent attack by many units as the primary maneuver from the start of the battle or campaign, not the convergent attacks that result as a matter of course when some unit becomes isolated and encircled because of some other maneuver.[1]

Biological Swarming

In nature, swarming plays on the natural physical and psychological vulnerabilities of the victim. Being spread out confuses the victim in regard to numbers. On the one hand the enemy seems to be everywhere but on the other hand the enemy is only seen in small numbers. This causes the victim to greatly over or underestimates the size of the enemy. As the enemy quickly joins forces and attacks the victim, the victim becomes extremely confused and disoriented. All of these results are also the object of most military operations.

Swarming theorists draw on biological and historical examples that exhibited the characteristics of deliberate swarming. The Joint Experimentation Directorate (J9) of the U.S. Joint Forces Command defined military swarming as "a maneuver in which forces and firepower converge on a target force simultaneously from all directions. The DOD expects swarming tactics to play an important role in future battlefield environments involving small, dispersed, autonomous units operating independently using networked, decentralized command and control. This tactic is especially important for rapid reaction forces that need to avoid sustained direct-fire battles and rely on elusiveness for survivability. The MITRE Corporation is continuing the J9 work,[4] by studying behaviors of bird flocks, animal herds, and insect colonies, and how they communicate and coordinate. Clearly, ants do not form and use a concept of swarming, but they can be observed to deposit chemical pheromones to coordinate foraging and other activities has proved extremely valuable. Algorithms based on the models that ants use to coordinate through pheromones were effective controlling a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles conducting an attack against mobile targets.

Ant algorithms, in the MITRE work, are described as lattice swarm models. In lattice swarm models, individual agents are constrained to behave in a three-dimensional space defined by a discrete lattice. Each agent has a repertoire of actions it can use to move through this space and modify the environment. An agent's sensors detect information derived from local properties of the agent's current position in the lattice and the positions directly adjacent to it. Since each agent has only a local view of the overall activity in the swarm, some additional mechanism must be available to coordinate the collective behavior of the swarm. Pheromones are one example of such a mechanism.

Stigmergy is an example of insect behaviors relevant to swarming. The term was introduced by Pierre-Paul Grassé, and explains that hive insects build complex nests by taking their cues from the structure itself. As the nest is built, the insects observe its current state and change their behavior accordingly to build the next piece. The behavior of wasps as they construct their sophisticated nests is a well-studied example of swarming behavior that can be modeled in the lattice swarm framework. The building activities of each individual wasp are directed purely by observing the nest components constructed by the other wasps in adjacent locations.

Massive, instinctively coordinated nest building

In the context of wasp nests, Theraulaz and Bonabeau elaborated on stigmergy.[5] Specifically, it is the coordination of activities throughout an environment. The control mechanisms for stimergy may be:[6]

  • Continuous or quantitative stigmergy, in which quantitatively different stimuli trigger quantitatively different behaviors
  • Discrete or qualitative stigmergy, where stimuli are classified into distinct classes, which trigger distinct behaviors

Massive, instinctively coordinated crisis response

Bees exhibit it when defending the hive, and it is useful to remember that a bee dies after it stings, so it is more analogous to a missile than a combat unit. Ants use massive numbers, attacking from all directions, in attacking prey, or competing ants, in a relatively small area.[1]

Pack-level coordination

Wolves and hyenas have also been shown to use swarming tactics. Unlike bees and ants, wolves often do not have massive numbers and are frequently outnumbered by their prey. However wolves stay far apart allowing them to cover more territory than their more numerous prey can. They only come together at the last moment to attack a weak member of the herd together. The ability to cover vast areas of land with few numbers, and to rapidly attack the enemy’s weak point from all sides has definite military applications. Pack behavior and hierarchy control the coordination of this sort of swarm.[1]

Nonmilitary Swarming

Two additional kinds of swarming demonstrate the behavior, but not in a manner precisely relevant to military strategy.

Opportunistic and uncoordinated

The next form of nonmilitary swarming is opportunistic, in which many individuals simply join in on a successful attack. These are not efficient models for military swarming, as there is very little coordination, and sometimes competition, among the members of the swarm. Mobs, soccer hooligans, viruses, bacteria and sharks all engage in this sort of attack.

Opportunistic and variably coordinated

More coordinated swarms are seen in sports and in malicious hacking of networked computers. Hackers often use swarming practices. By gaining control of many victims email accounts they are able to concentrate a massive assault on their target from countless different sources and overwhelm their target. Swarming is even used in sports. Basketball teams use a “triangle offense” in which players are dispersed but can rapidly pass the ball between each other.

The key to swarming is information, distributed to the swarm operating resources, to on-scene commanders when the swarm is not autonomous, and to senior commanders who can release more resources to the swarm. Information is necessary both to avoid fratricide and target the enemy. Hackers have already recognized that the future of information conflict is swarming; now the military must come to the same conclusion.[7]

Political Swarms

Either opportunistically or preplanned, the use of swarming is becoming a factor in political demonstrations and may become significant in unconventional warfare in urban areas.[8] Among the best known examples is the WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 protest activity and the EDSA Revolution of 2001 that overthrew Philippine President Joseph Estrada.[9] Both used text messaging, cellphones, and websites for near-real-time coordination, previously associated only with advanced military forces. As described by Howard Rheingold, "Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation.[10]

Planned and highly coordinated

In North America, the Incident Command System is the main paradigm for emergency response to incidents requiring many responders. ICS originated in the fire service, where, even at a relatively small incident, there still needs to be an Incident Commander (IC) to which all firefighters look for guidance. Police use it as well, for events requiring multiple responses (e.g., hostage and bomb situations). Honan described well-managed public safety emergencies, under ICS, as a swarm model.[11] They differ from some in that the operational units are not completely autonomous, there is an on-scene Incident Commander (IC), and higher command levels support the IC with resources.

If the IC decides that more resources are needed, there are specific protocols for calling in resources from one's own department, from neighboring areas with which there are mutual aid agreements, and, for sufficiently large incidents, all the way up to national resources. As the response grows, the original IC may be replaced by a more appropriate commander, but the handover is always well-defined; the responders never need to question their point of command. When high value low density (HVLD) assets are needed, such as bomb squads or SWAT teams, the IC requests their assignment, but controls them once they are assigned.

Swarming applies in the sense that additional resources may arrive in a semi-random manner, and need to be directed to the appropriate point of attack on a fire or other disaster. Mutual aid agreements may trigger a distributed form of swarming, in which neighboring jurisdictions send their firefighters to stations vacated by the responders in the original department, and will respond to unrelated incidents.

While the IC runs operations at the event, there is still a 911 dispatch center that directs responses to other incidents. As the incident grows in size, a Joint Command post is established to coordinate delivering more swarm resources to the IC, and finding additional resources. For the largest disasters, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) is activated. The Joint Command or NIMS center may manage the dispatch of resources to ICs at multiple incidents.

Swarming in history

For more information, see: Historical examples of military swarming.

Enthusiasts of swarming sometimes apply it to situations that have superficial similarities, but really do not qualify as swarms. While swarms do converge on a target, not every military action, where multiple units attacked from all sides of a target, constitute swarming. Other conflicts, especially historical ones, fit a swarming paradigm, but the commanders involved did not use the concept. Nevertheless, historical examples help illustrate what modern analysts do and do not consider swarming.

The evolution of modern swarming

Swarming was present in the operations of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, but were generally replaced by melee and mass in the pre-industrial era. More synchronized maneuver was paced by the availability of mobile communications. Blitzkrieg was certainly a use of maneuver, but it was less flexible than later operations in which every tank and aircraft had radios, and far less flexible that forces that have effective networked information systems.[12] They define swarming, in a military context, as "...seemingly amorphous, but it is a deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions."

One aspect of swarming is that it moves away from the traditional model of a rigid chain of command.[13] This paper suggests abandoning the term command and control in favor of

  • agility: "... the critical capability that organizations need to meet the challenges of complexity and uncertainty"
  • focus: "provides the context and defines the purposes of the endeavor"
  • convergence. "convergence is the goal-seeking process that guides actions and effects."

Agility is a characteristic of an organization or unit capable of swarming. Focus can be designation of a goal by a higher-level commander, by a peer unit detecting a target, or by intelligence systems that feed information to the swarming units. Convergence is the key feature, which, while it can be distributed, causes swarming units to coordinate their actions, apply force, and know when to stop applying force.

Edwards holds that several axioms of military doctrine[14] change with the use of swarming:[15]

Edwards on Principles of War Changed by Swarming
Traditional Principle of War Redefinition with Swarming
Mass Dispersed mass
Economy of force Simultaneity
Unity of command Unity of effort

Osgood points out that swarming is not new, although the means of coordination and synchronization are going through significant changes.[16] Howard Rheingold cites mobile communications technology as a key enabler: The bees sense each other's buzzing and instinctually move in concert in real time. Text messaging on mobile devices and instantaneous file sharing off the internet via PDAs allows groups of people to receive their instructions, move in unison, nearly instantaneously, without prior planning or forethought. And, the technology allows groups to do so without a central leader. One modern example is the protesters at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, in 1999, who were able to orchestrate their movement effectively in this way.

Blitzkrieg was not Swarming

While many might think of blitzkrieg as swarming, the delays between armored attacks were longer than characterize pulsing. Part of the problem is while the armored groups were highly mobile, much of the logistical support was horse-drawn and the infantry to hold the flanks moved by foot.

Polish theater, with Blitzkrieg penetration rather than swarming.

There were also problems with communications. Not all tanks or aircraft had radios, and when they did, they often were incompatible. The Germans had not worked out a combined forces command post that could manage swarming, and the potentially swarming elements lacked the communications to do this autonomously.

While the situation at the Battle of Dunkirk was more complex since Hermann Goering, commanding the German Luftwaffe air arm, had promised to destroy the desperately retreating forces, had swarming been used, pressure would never have been taken off the British and allied forces.

Swarming by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain

In contrast, Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command, in the Battle of Britain, had excellent communications and coordination. While radar is often credited as the winning factor for the British, the Sector Stations and the overall British command system was even more critical. Air defense commanders had information constantly funneled to them from a variety of sources, certainly including radar but also readiness reports from bases, combat reporting from engaged fighters, sightings from ground observer and antiaircraft artillery sites, and SIGINT.

British radar coverage in the Battle of Britain

The British were often able to judge when the Germans had committed their forces, and would then move fighters assigned to areas not under attack to join the heavily engaged forces.

German tactics in the Battle of the Atlantic: Mixed benefits

German U-boats used the same tactics during World War II that wolves use against prey. Despite being against the two largest navies in the world, during the years of 1941 and 1942 the Germans were sinking more ships than the allies could produce. Individual U-Boats patrolled throughout the Atlantic but could then come together and attack weak merchant ships from all sides.

When wolfpacks could attack in a swarm, they needed to be ordered to do so, and coordinated, by radio. The Germans did not know the extent to which the Allies could use effective radio direction-finding HF/DF and cryptanalysis of the messages sent by their Enigma machines. Eventually, the Allies combined SIGINT with swarms of aircraft, cooperating with antisubmarine vessels, to sink enough U-boats to minimize the threat.

Battle of Surigao Strait: Decisive swarming victory

Swarms arranged along Surigao Strait

One of the battles of the Leyte Gulf campaign, which would have been a major engagement but was dwarfed by the overall Leyte operation, was the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last battleship-to-battleship gun duel in history. A Japanese force, under Admiral Shoji Nishimura, consisting of two battleships, a cruiser, and several destroyers, attempted to advance through Surigao Strait. The Americans were aware they were coming, and prepared a swarming ambush.[17]

This battle may have some relevance to modern situations, such as a major modern naval force in the Persian Gulf. While the 39 PT boats do not appear to have done significant damage to Nishimura's force, they distracted it and broke up its formation. While individual modern speedboats, even prepared to make suicide attacks with explosive payloads, may not have that much effect against a carrier battle group, they cannot be ignored. Potentially, they could help force a surface group into the range of quietly submerged submarines, or into the range of massed antiship missiles on shore or ships.

RADM Jesse Oldendorf arranged the PT boats as the first swarm, followed by destroyer squadrons prepared for torpedo attack. A line of battleships capped the T of the strait, with additional cruisers and destroyers screening their rear.

In the early hours of 25 October 1944, 39 PT boats. attacked in swarms. The exact damage they did is unknown, but they clearly distracted Nishimura's force from more deadly forces.

The next set of swarms were three destroyer squadrons, making squadron-sized torpedo attacks starting at 0300, and continuing for over 30 minutes. The inflicted damage included causing the battleship Fuso to break in half but not sink. Finally, six US battleships completed the destruction. Nishimura went down with his flagship. Most of the US battleships had effective fire control radar but the Japanese did not, more evidence of the value of sensors in swarm tactics.

Modern Military Swarming

Current military applications of swarming combine the use of swarms: large numbers of relatively small agents or weapons, with synchronized actions, such that the swarm reacts faster than its opponent and defeats it. This section deals with general principles, but also high-intensity combat.

Swarming does not require good military intelligence alone, but intelligent soldiers who can manage multiple information streams and keep situational awareness. It is not advisable to have a soldier so engrossed in displays that an enemy can sneak up and hit him over the head with a rock. One of the challenges of designing modern networked systems is not to overwhelm the users with information. Those users will also need extensive training, with their sensing and synchronization information, to use them properly under combat stress.

Principles of Modern Swarming

Swarming requires autonomous or semi-autonomous operating agents, with strong synchronization and communications among them. Senior commanders release resources to the swarm, but do not control them once released. If the agents are semi-autonomous, there will be an on-scene commander giving general direction to the swarming agents.

Communications and Synchronization are Critical

For combatant units to use swarming efficiently, they must be closely coordinated. A distributed control mechanism, where peer units keep one another notified of their location, status, and intention, is much more fault-tolerant than relying on a single command post. One of Napoleon's combat advantages was the introduction of both terrain maps and reliable timepieces, which let him synchronize widely separated actions. When a central command post, especially with backups, can coordinate, it can allow combat units to be even more effective, if the units need not use radars and other easily detectable units in order to locate their targets.

India has recently ordered AWACS airborne radar & control aircraft, and, while awaiting delivery of the Russian aircraft using Israeli electronics, participated in joint training exercises with the U.S. During these exercises, the Indian pilots had an opportunity to operate under US AWACS control, and found it extremely effective.[18] Officer and pilot comments included "definitely was a force multiplier. Giving you an eye deep beyond you"... "We could pick up incoming targets whether aircraft or missiles almost 400 kilometers away. It gives a grand battle coordination in the air". In typical scenarios involving AWACS, only the AWACS radar is active in a search mode, with onboard battle controllers sending directions to the fighters via secure voice radio and data links.

In 1991, Coalition units in Operation Desert Storm had an unprecedented ability to synchronize, as well as not being limited to roads, with the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that give precision location and time information. Still, GPS did not make units aware of one another, and a significant number of Coalition casualties were due to fratricide.

Improved decision-making as a force multiplier

Swarming ties in well with the theories of John Boyd, the "high-low mix" in which a large number of less expensive aircraft, coupled with a small number of extremely capable "silver bullet" aircraft, had the effect of a much larger force. Boyd's concept of quick action is based on the repeated application of the Boyd loop, consisting of the steps

  • Observe: make use of the best sensors and other intelligence available
  • Orient: put the new observations into a context with the old
  • Decide: select the next action based on the combined observation and local knowledge
  • Act: carry out the selected action, ideally while the opponent is still observing your last action.

Boyd's concept is also known as the OODA Loop, and is applicable to all military operations, as well as to civilian competition from sports to business.

These are a realization of Boyd's theories. A swarming case is any historical example in which the scheme of maneuver involves the convergent attack of five (or more) semiautonomous (or autonomous) units on a targeted force in some particular place. "Convergent" implies an attack from most of the points on the compass."[1]

Swarming avoids fratricide

Prevention of fratricide, as well as the ability to make ad hoc swarming attacks on targets of opportunity, is one of the major goals of combat data networking among units down to the level of individual tanks and soldiers. Blue Force Tracker is an early vehicle-level synchronization system,[19] also operating in helicopters.[20] These systems are still new and undergoing considerable improvement. One fratricide incident in Afghanistan came from the users not understanding that their target designation device reinitialized, after battery replacement, to the position of their designator, not of the target. If the bomber had had a beacon that gave the crew the precise location of the friendly troops, that would have been another way of avoiding attacking one's own troops.

Contemporary and near-future military applications

Other devices interconnect ground forces with each other and with support aircraft The same piece of electronics, with different software,[21] can be an U.S. Air Force Situation Awareness Data Link (SADL) device that communicates between aircraft doing close air support, but also can exchange mission data with Army Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) equipment. Again, the same basic equipment interconnects EPLRS ground units. These devices are not U.S-only, but are being made available to NATO and other allies.

Swarming by Reconnaissance Coupled with PGM Support

After the advent of close air support with precision guided munitions (PGM), there was still direct target marking by a ground or air observer, typically with a laser. Another approach was to specify the target in relation to a beacon.

When there was air superiority and available heavy bomber support, the ground swarms changed from an attritional attack to a special reconnaissance mission focusing on finding targets for aircraft. SR had had the capability to use laser designators for the go-onto-target (GOT) model, but that required they stay in line of sight of the target (i.e., possibly exposing themselves) or placing an electronic offset beacon near the target, but the SR troops still face the problem of precise angular and distance measurement from the beacon to the target. In the Afghanistan campaign of 2001, a new technique was adopted: ground-aided precision strike (GAPS)[22] To put GAPS in practice, MG Daniel Leaf, USAF Director of Operational Requirements for Air and Space Operations said, in 2002, "If you had offered the B-1 with JDAMs in direct support of ground forces as a solution 10 years ago, I would have laughed heartily because it’s not what we envisioned." The JDAM's principal guidance mechanism is inertial, with a GPS correction option: a Go-onto-location-in-space (GOLIS) model.

"Precision firepower called in by TACPs on the ground [is] GAPS and [needs its own doctrine]. The situation in Afghanistan was unique; there was not a large-standing opposing army that was conducting maneuvers to bring firepower to bear against our forces... Airpower was the maneuvering element that was supported by the small fire support teams on the ground. The small ground units have been instrumental in calling in the precise air strikes [especially when Army Special Forces were augmented with Air Force Combat Control teams. This emerging mission goes beyond the joint definition of CAS.[22]

Shoot and Scoot

Artillery, whether cannon, rocket, or missile, also must avoid direct combat. Since modern counter-artillery radar, acoustic, and electro-optical sensors can detect a projectile in flight, and send coordinates of its launcher to its own side's counter-battery artillery within 15-30 seconds, artillery that fires and fails to move immediately dies. Most artillery is self-propelled, and has ammunition supply vehicles of equivalent mobility. The doctrine is to fire, and then move immediately to a new position. Once at the next positions, the firing pieces reload if necessary, fire, and then move again.

Unmanned vehicles and swarms

A variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUV),[23] some capable of observation only and others (UCAV and UCGV) of using combat weapons on the enemy, will have a major effect on swarming. Previously, when one swarming unit pulled away to rearm and regroup, as another unit "pulsed" another attack, there could be a loss of situational awareness to the group that withdrew. It is now quite possible for that unit to leave a low-visibility drone aircraft or vehicle giving them continuing visual or other sensor data on the enemy they attacked, and to network these data to other units in the swarm. Combat vehicles can keep up pressure where no actual troops are in contact.

One area in which a hierarchy of swarming agents show promise is demining. Lambert describes a system where the swarming begins by sending a large UUV to a mined area of water, where it approximates the positions of suspected mines.[23] The large UUV then dispatches pairs of bistatic micro-UUVs to the positions in question. Pairing the UUVs (i.e., using them bistatically) helps in positioning and three-dimensional characterization. Once there, the micro-UUVs can identify the object, send information back on it, and neutralize it. Sufficiently small and simple UUVs need not be recoverable if an inexpensive UUV saves a manned ship.[23] With different economics for land mines, a similar method could use UGVs.

Surveillance by UAVs, UGVs, UUVs, reconnaissance troops, and combat troops keeping a distance from the unit being attacked, also can guide indirect (i.e., non-line-of-site) weapons onto the target, from artillery, missiles, and aircraft.

Swarming is not a panacea

Swarming should be adapted, for appropriate missions, but is not a panacea. The challenge of modern combat is to find and fix the enemy. Once located, they can be destroyed, but they first must be found and held in place. In modern warfare, when one side has air superiority and has the location of a ground force, it can defeat that force. Swarming is not appropriate when the forces are generally matched as to technology, especially if air superiority is contested, such as in the Falklands War.

One of the prerequisites for swarming is considerable autonomy for the maneuver units. Doctrine has been moving in the direction of mission-type tactics, as opposed to extremely specific directives giving no discretion to the junior commander, have multiplied the effectiveness of forces. Originating from German pre-WWII concepts of Auftragstaktik, these tactics may be developing even more rapidly in the concept of network-centric warfare, where subordinate commanders receive information not only from their own commanders, but from adjacent units. Sharing information, and pushing it to lower levels, is not a substitute for intelligent decision-making; military forces are not bees or wasps. Some of the challenges of swarming, indeed, involve the ability of lower echelons to be aware of much more complex situations. Information overload is a real concern.

Decentralized decision-making has broader implications than military issues alone. It is wise to avoid micromanagement, but sometimes political decisions are necessary before taking an action. The C4ISR expert panel suggested moving from the "operational engagement area to explore swarming methodology for other missions/applications", such as protecting computer networks and defending against terrorism.[3] There will be new complexity in Rules of Engagement: at what point can an autonomous weapons system be trusted to fire without human oversight?

More swarming will mean shifts in leadership, personnel, and facilities. The leadership must be able to trust a decentralized model, and all levels must have interoperable communications. There may be cases where higher-ranking officers need to command, or provide support to, smaller units than those with which they normally work, because that swarming agent may be the only one in contact with the enemy.

Command thinking is one personnel issue. Another, especially with autonomous or semiautonomous combat systems, is having "Smarter, more skilled personnel - But tradeoff is need for less personnel". The remaining personnel will be more like special operators -- can enough be found?

Distributed models will call for both more prepositioned resources (not necessarily personnel) and the ability to reach back to the home country for support. Just in time logistics may replace forward permanent bases, but those logistics have to be able to reach the users.

Continuing Roles for Mass and Maneuver

Modern forces, to some extent, still use mass, melee and maneuver, although certainly in a different form than the Mongols or even WWII. The AirLand Battle doctrine worked effectively against Iraqi forces in Operation Desert Storm, and in the conventional early stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Until there was a diversion of effort into preparing for the Iraqi invasions, certainly the early operations in Afghanistan used a good deal of swarming, with SR designating bomber targets, and then local forces dealing with direct combat.

Misuse of Mass, Maneuver, and Swarming

AirLand Battle, of course, has been ineffective against the Iraqi insurgency, but, in fairness, it was not designed for such combat. Reaching back to WWII occupation planning, GEN Eric Shinseki's recommendations for a much larger occupation force for Iraq,[24] and Thomas P. M. Barnett's concept of the "System Administrator" all applied better to the post-conventional phase that should have been expected.[25] In Barnett's terminology, Leviathan was asked to do the job of System Administrator.

Swarming is not appropriate for all low-intensity conflict. If one considers civilian law enforcement as able to use swarming, it is indeed appropriate to swarm a car, full of criminals actively shooting, which is moving at dangerous high speed through crowded streets. Police calming a domestic situation, often find calmness, not a show of force, to be most effective.

Finding the balance: Speed/Deployability, Offense, and Defense

Before battleships became obsolete, their designers, such as Admiral of the Fleet Jacky Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher, constantly tried to find the right balance between armor, speed, and firepower. Specialized designs such as battlecruisers proved effective in their originally planned roles as scouts and commerce raiders against ships with light escorts. They were not intended to join battleships in gun-to-gun duels, and met with disaster when so used at the Battle of Jutland.

The concept of a battlecruiser is that it would be fast enough to run away from any ship with bigger guns, and heavily armed enough to destroy any ship that could not escape it. A related problem faces modern ground force designers. The US military is still trying to find the right balance among strategic mobility (e.g., air-transportability), lethality, and survivability. An M1A2 tank is almost invulnerable to ground weapons, but it can be flown only in the largest transport aircraft, is too heavy for many third world bridges, and too wide for many streets in urban combat. A Humvee is agile but can be defeated by light weapons.

Deployable light or survivable heavy force?

While they can be flown in tactical transport aircraft, medium fighting vehicles such as the Stryker or LAV III cannot go directly against heavy armor. To win with these easily deployable vehicles that have light protection, they must be elusive to avoid direct fire, and use organic or supporting standoff weapons.


A rapidly moving swarming force may rapidly over-extend its supply lines unless the supply units are as mobile as the fighting units. Similar situations have occurred both in the advance into Iraq as rapidly moving fighting units overextended their supply lines, and historically in the case of the German army in World War II, when front line panzer units were mechanized while their supply units were horse drawn. In both cases the supply units were not organized and equipped to be as mobile as the fighting units.

This has been a specific concern to military planners, and solutions implemented by the US and allies include fast, all-terrain support vehicles such as the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. In certain circumstances, it is faster to carry tanks and other tracked vehicles to the jump-off point using Heavy Equipment Transporter System trucks.

Representative HEMTT truck that can keep up with swarming forces.

When forces move by helicopter, they may interleave combat and logistical moves, with helicopters bringing up fuel for the next group of helicopters and ground vehicles. Additional fuel can be brought up by slower trucks. The distance that a heliborne unit can move, in each combat "pulse" move, is set by the spacing of forward arming and refueling points (FARP).[26]. There are several helicopter configurations that optimize their ability to transport fuel into FARPs, but there will be a delicate balance of the number and type of helicopters committed to fuel transport, as opposed to those available for combat operations. While a FARP technically covers both fueling and rearming, the closer the FARP to the enemy, the more likely it is to be restricted to fueling.[27]

Concern over evacuating the wounded has been met in several ways. Perhaps most important, a swarming force avoiding direct combat will need fewer soldiers, and, if the doctrine works, will have fewer casualties. Combat Lifesaver training, a mixture of first aid and paramedic skills solely devoted to stabilizing a wounded soldier for evacuation, is being given to more and more troops. Medium armored vehicles have ambulance versions in which treatment can begin, and helicopters are well known for casualty evacuation if their side has air superiority and suppresses air defenses.

Stryker Medical Evacuation Vehicle

Modern militaries and lower-intensity conflict

Alternatively, the US and other major powers may go to a more cooperative model, as in the foreign internal defense mission of special forces. In that model, which needs extensive lead time, the major power's uses nonmilitary and military means to increase the capability of the host nation to resist insurgency.

Foreign internal defense includes the economic stabilization of host countries. In Thomas P. M. Barnett's paradigm, [25] the world is divided into a "connected core" of nations enjoying a high level of communications among their organizations and individuals, and those nations that are disconnected internally and externally. In a reasonably peaceful situation, he describes a "system administrator" force, often multinational, which does what some call "nation-building", but, most importantly, connects the nation to the core and empowers the natives to communicate -- that communication can be likened to swarm coordination.

Swarming is not a panacea for conflict at all levels. If there is a significant military force preventing the system administrator from working on developing connections, the other part of the paradigm comes into play:[25] the leviathan, a first-world military force that takes down the opposition regular forces. Leviathan is not constituted to fight local insurgencies, but major forces. Leviathan may use extensive swarming at the tactical level, but its dispatch is a strategic decision that may be made unilaterally, or by an established core group such as NATO, ASEAN, or the United Nations.

It is the job of the system administrator force to deal with low-level conflict, and there must be both resources and a smooth transition plan from Leviathan to System Administrator responsibility, of which a classic successful example were the Operation Rankin plans that covered several ways in which Nazi power might end [28] which is more a mission for police, which certainly can include a militarized force like the Constabulary in the post-WWII occupation of Germany.[29]

Swarming would allow major powers to rapidly respond to guerrilla forces, but, given the appropriate synchronization and communications, the less powerful forces can use swarming themselves. Modern communications allows military units to stay widely dispersed. The front, rear and flanks are disappearing from military conflict. Swarming allows the military to fight everywhere.

Swarming and Third World nations

Swarming is advantageous to less powerful countries and groups, because it allows them to balance their disadvantage in firepower and numbers. Despite being less technically advanced, Communist forces made good use of swarming in Asia during the Cold War. The Chinese were able to make up for their lack of firepower by attacking Western forces from all sides and then quickly advancing to the rear. The Vietcong were famous from attacking from all directions out of nowhere and then quickly disappearing. When they did come into close contact, they used a technique called "hugging the belt", which meant they were too close for the US to employ air and artillery support [30]. If the attackers "hugged" at several points, "pulsing" their attacks, they both neutralized external fire support, but also made it difficult for the US commander to know where to commit reserves.

Instead the best investment for third world nations and groups is to adapt swarming. History has shown that massed swarming has actually had more success than swarming through firepower. The United States is intensely reliant on firepower. As the Viet Cong showed, attacks from all directions, in close quarters can be highly effective.

Nonplanned swarming is also effective. Numbers and firepower can be matched by the psychological difficulties of being attacked from all sides. The ability to rapidly break up prevents modern militaries from promptly reacting. Swarming can be a much more effective version of guerrilla warfare. Swarming calls for much smaller units. Used effectively, they can avoid decisive victory for more powerful forces, and exploit political advantages of the lack of victory.

Swarming principles in terrorism

Anthony Cordesman observes that swarming is a viable terrorist tactic against targets of opportunity.[31] al-Qaeda, for example, uses a different form of swarming than those of advanced militaries, in which the general objectives of operational cells are agreed in a manner coordinated, but not continuously controlled by the core organization. Once the decision has been made on the general targets, the operational cells cut positive control links from the core, although they may still receive financial and other support. A signature of al-Qaeda operations has been multiple, near-simultaneous attacks, such as the several hijacked airliners in the 9/11 attacks, the closely spaced bombings aimed at US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and attacks on buses and trains in London. The attacks on trains in Spain had an additional dimension: not all the swarms were associated with al-Qaeda.

While John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, cites the ability to plan separate and widely dispersed attacks, coordinated by mobile communications that might originate from a cave on the Afghan-Pakistan border,[16] he does not emphasize the apparent al-Qaeda technique of releasing operational units to local control, once the policy is set.[32] See Clandestine HUMINT operational techniques.

The apparent al-Qaeda methodology of letting operational cells decide on their final dates and means of attack exhibit an operational pattern, but not a periodicity that could easily be used for an indications checklist appropriate for a warning center. Such lists depend on seeing a local pattern to give a specific warning. [33]

Semiautonomous swarming, in which the actors occasionally interfere with one another, is seen in attacks on computer networks by loose confederations of malicious hackers. On occasion, especially when the attack uses a botnet,[34] some of the units may try to overpower and control one another, as well as the target.[35] One of the observations of the Center on Terrorism and Irregular Warfare was that unfocused mass disruption was not a useful terrorist, and by extension general military, tactic.[35] The 9/11 attacks had symbolism. A cyberattack on a stock market would have symbolism. For the political purposes of the swarm, there has to be a symbol to which observers need to connect the purpose of the attack.


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