U.S. Army Upgrades ‘Bee Swarm’ To ‘Wolf Pack’ During EDGE Trials

uncrewed aerial wolf packs
This year’s EDGE 2022 exercise tested the use of uncrewed aerial “wolf packs.”
Credit: U.S. Army

Envision a scenario where drone swarms lead future air assault missions by the U.S. Army: Roving dozens of miles deep into enemy territory with sensors, jammers and warheads, these networked air systems will be tasked as an autonomous group to hunt for hostile air defenses, then attack them or send their positions back to crewed helicopters armed with precision munitions or ground units with long-range missiles.

  • New tactic divides swarm into four salvos
  • DARPA autonomy technology controls roving drone packs

But that is only a concept. With the Army scheduled to field the first swarm-equipped units in the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) family of systems in eight years, even basic details of a new operational specialty for tactical swarming behaviors are still being worked out.

Consequently, the Army gathered 1,300 soldiers, technicians and analysts from 23 defense organizations and seven foreign allies for three weeks at Dugway Proving Ground—a dusty stretch of Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert larger than Rhode Island—for the second annual Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercises (EDGE), which ran from late April to mid-May with 34 new technologies including 17 from the FVL portfolio.

Drone swarm tactics have evolved significantly since the Army began the EDGE series a year ago. In May 2021, the drones that the Army calls “Air-Launched Effects (ALE)-Small” operated like a swarm of bees, says Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the FVL cross-functional team. The drones were launched as a group and tasked collectively with performing the entire “kill chain,” meaning detecting, identifying, locating and reporting an enemy air defense system, then attacking the system as necessary and following up with a battle damage assessment.

The experiment, however, revealed flaws in the “bee swarm” concept. The aerial tier network (ATN) used by the platform lacked enough range and bandwidth for the swarm to communicate internally, and the multitude of tasks also overwhelmed the autonomous algorithms that manage the swarm.

So the EDGE 2022 participants tried a different approach. In lieu of a single “bee swarm,” the Army divided the ALEs into four “wolf packs.” Instead of launching the drones simultaneously, the Army released the wolf packs in salvos, each with a discrete mission.

The first salvo was sent to detect and report the location of the hostile air defense systems. The second wolf pack then launched with a mission to overwhelm the enemy defenses with potential targets. With the enemy’s surface-to-air missile systems preoccupied, a third salvo of ALEs attacked the target, using themselves as mini-cruise missiles or calling in strikes by long-range missiles. Finally, a fourth wolf pack flew over the target area to provide battle damage assessment.

“When you look at this interactive wolf pack swarm, that is new from last year when we were talking about a bee swarm,” Rugen says.

Besides tactics, swarming behavior also requires enabling technology, such as autonomy control software and a robust network.

For the EDGE 2022 event, DARPA provided the autonomy system with the System-of-Systems Enhanced Small Unit (SESU). In 2021, the agency awarded Raytheon Technologies a $24 million contract to demonstrate an autonomy core that could enable a company-sized unit to control a drone swarm with a minimum of direct intervention. The soldiers define an objective, and the SESU-enabled swarm decides within itself how to achieve it.

The Army also is experimenting with options for the ATN, which connects the drones with each other and other friendly contacts. A year ago, a single-waveform ATN proved inadequate to control the “bee swarm” of ALEs. This year, the Army equipped the wolf packs with two waveforms each, allowing the network to use the optimal channel depending on the task.

The bee swarm and the wolf pack are not launched blindly. In both EDGE events, the Army has experimented with new airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. In 2022, the L3Harris Technologies-owned Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System (ARES) participated in the first few days of EDGE but then received a real-world mission assignment in the Indo-Pacific Command area. The ARES was replaced during EDGE with a Bombardier CRJ900 radar and electronic warfare testbed owned by Northrop Grumman, which contributed to the Long-Range Radar-Enhanced, a sensor that entered service a year ago on the Army’s EO-5C fleet.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.