WASHINGTON — As the U.S. military deals with a seemingly endless invasion of unidentified objects in the skies, the Pentagon is reportedly planning to develop a new “weapon of mass destruction” — hordes of air, land, and sea-based drones. With some calling it the “swarm of swarms,” the program’s reported development is raising ethical and security concerns.
The top-secret strategy envisages automated, coordinated attacks by many types of unmanned machines. Critics suggest management of these machines will be difficult, raising the prospect of lethal force without direct oversight. Most details of U.S. defense research agency DARPA’s project are classified.
However, AMASS (Autonomous Multi-Domain Adaptive Swarms-of-Swarms) is reportedly described in federal contract documents revealed in a recent report by New Scientist. The controversial plan involves thousands of small aerial, ground, and underwater drones working together to destroy enemy defenses. The drones would carry missiles and tools, including target identifying GPS and radar jammers. Bids for the $78 million contract closed on Friday, Feb. 10.
“As the swarm grows in size, it’ll become virtually impossible for humans to manage the decisions,” says Zachary Kallenborn, a policy fellow at George Mason University, in the report according to South West News Service (SWNS).
“Autonomy and AI will be needed to make those decisions – with all the brittleness that entails,” continues Kallenborn, an author on WMD terrorism and homeland security. “A massive drone swarm prone to errors would be a terrifying thing – a new weapon of mass destruction.”
Would humans be able to control an army of drones?
It isn’t clear how AMASS will handle their independence, Kallenborn says. It reportedly wouldn’t need human assistance on the ground. The swarms could coordinate their actions across the entire area of the operation, which may span a whole country.
Gregory Allen, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., claims the Pentagon has been experimenting with swarms of hundreds of
drones. However, larger groups with land, air, and sea components will introduce complexity and make communication more of an issue.
“In theory AMASS could be entirely non-lethal – carrying out jamming or other non-kinetic attacks in support of other platforms that actually destroy the defenses. I think that’s unlikely though,” Kallenborn says in the report.
Allen is also dubious it could carry out its mission without using lethal force. Low-cost drones have proven effective in the conflict in Ukraine, where they have destroyed tanks, swamped air defenses, and damaged power grids. However, these drones have been individually controlled.
A control system will enable thousands of units, including drones, submarines, and robot tanks to communicate, exchange information, and coordinate actions autonomously.
The report says a DARPA spokesperson says the aim of this project is to keep humans making key decisions, with drones waiting for permission to act if communications fail. There would be people somewhere overseeing and able to step in if necessary.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.