A mass drone attack on Russian forces in Syria has highlighted the very real danger that small unmanned aircraft increasingly pose, even in the hands of non-state groups. At the same time, it underscores how small drone swarms could be a game-changing capability for larger nation states, including the United States’ near-peer opponents, such as China, who are already developing this technology in more structured environments.
In December 2017, researchers from the Chinese state National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), more formally known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) National University of Defense Science and Technology, conducted an experiment involving approximately two dozen of small fixed wing unmanned aircraft. An official PLA publication said that the test consisted of the entire group of drones acting as a swarm to complete a simulated reconnaissance mission, according to the East Pendulum blog. The individual aircraft operated together as a single entity and performed certain, unspecified portions of the flight autonomously.