Wars of the Future Could Be Fought With U.S. Drone Swarms

A drone is pictured as a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter gets into a military vehicle in northern Deir al-Zor province ahead of an offensive against Islamic State group militants, Syria, February 21, 2017. Rodi Said/Reuters

Swarms of high-tech yet inexpensive drones may be a cornerstone of the U.S. military's arsenal in future conflicts, according to the lead scientist at the Pentagon's secretive weapons development laboratory.

Speaking at an Air Force Association event in Arlington, Virginia, William Roper, who heads the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), revealed Tuesday his forecast for the U.S.' future weaponry, which included automated teams of drones capable of entering combat zones and conducting reconnaissance missions to collect precious data for military intelligence. These machines would be relatively cheap compared to the costly devices used today. While Roper said it could take some time to perfect the systems, he disclosed that much of the necessary technology was already in the military's hands.

"What used to be solo systems are going to have to be teams to be relevant in the near future, maybe even the far future. The technology is available today to make teams of systems higher performing than solo systems can be on their own," Roper said, according to Defense News.

At the SCO, Roper has worked closely with the Department of Defense to develop the weapons likely to shape the battlefields of tomorrow. The SCO has already achieved some major breakthroughs in drone swarm technology, creating systems such as Perdix—autonomous micro-drones capable of being launched by air, sea or land and performing low-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Earlier this year, the SCO revealed its testing of the Avatar system, pairing unmanned aircraft with a manned fighter to minimize risk for U.S. personnel.

"Increasingly we're going to ask our designers, including those in industry, to help us shift all of the dangerous jobs in combat—as many of them as we can do in an ethical way—to machines that can take the brunt of at least that initial edge of conflict so that … we have the maximum number of our operators returning home safely," Roper said, according to National Defense Magazine.

In addition to his predictions, Roper revealed his fears. He said that he believed the progression of artificial intelligence in military technology would remain within the realm of ethics and human control, which he likened to a "quarterback," but said it was "a kind of a technology we will have to keep our eyes on," Defense One reported.