Dozens of cheap drones were deployed against Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields to cut Saudi Aramco's production by half, according to multiple media reports. Saudi and US officials have blamed Iran for the destructive hit. This is the first time that cheap drone swarms loaded with explosives have dodged sophisticated air defense systems to hit critical infrastructure targets in the history of warfare. And it is not likely to be the last time as more nations and non-state terror groups are inspired by it to develop and contemplate using such tactics. Some are close to home for Pakistanis. For example, in a clear warning to Pakistan, an Indian NDTV headline on July 12, 2019 blared: "Swarms Of Indian Drones Being Designed To Take Out Targets Like Balakot (Pakistan)". Will Pakistan develop drone swarm capability, especially after India's expected deployment of Russia's S-400 air defense system?
Attack on Saudi Aramco:
Saudi sources have revealed through the media that 25 drones and missiles were used to hit two sites — the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities which produced 5.7 million barrels of oil per day. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of carrying out the attack. Iran has denied. Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack.
The incoming low-flying small drones and missiles successfully evaded US-supplied sophisticated air defense system. Multi-billion dollar cutting edge American military hardware mainly designed to deter high altitude attacks has proved no match for low-cost drones and cruise missiles used in a strike that crippled its giant oil industry.
Drone Swarms in Syria:
Israeli claimed earlier this year that its fighter jets hit targets in Syria where Iran was preparing to attack Israel using explosive-laden “killer drones,” according to New York Times. “The drone itself is like a missile,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman.
Last year, Russian military reported that a swarm of low-tech armed drones attacked a Russian military base in Syria. The swarm was made up of 13 small drones packed with explosives.
Russia said it shot down seven drones using anti-aircraft missiles while the other six were taken under control and landed by its military. Three of the drones survived the landing.
The Russian government accused the Syrian rebels of launching the attack.
India's Drone Swarm Plans:
A team of engineers and software experts at India's state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and NewSpace Research and Technologies, a Bengaluru based start-up looking at next-generation aviation technologies, is working furiously to fly the first Indian swarm drone prototypes in two years, according to NDTV. The Indian drone initiative is called SWARM or ALFA-S or Air-Launched Flexible Asset, says NDTV.
The NDTV story described India's SWARM as follows: "Each swarm could have dozens of individual drones. If detected, some of the drones would be shot down, but the sheer numbers of the swarm would overwhelm enemy defences such as surface-to-air missile units to ensure a high probability of mission success".
China Drones Swarm:
At the conclusion of the Global Fortune Forum in Guangzhou, China last year, the event's hosts set a world record for the largest drone swarm ever deployed. For 9 minutes, 1,180 drones danced and blinked out an aerial show. It was cool. It was also an interesting look into the potential future of aviation, according to a report in Popular Science.
Earlier in 2019, China's Global Times reported that country had built helicopter drones capable of intelligent swarm attacks. The drones in the swarm can be a combination of different types, including those that can drop proximity explosive mortar shells, while others can carry grenade launchers, or make suicide attacks, Liu Liyuan, a spokesperson of the company, told the Global Times.
American and British Drone Swarms:
Earlier this year, British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson told attendees at an event hosted by a London think tank that UK will fund the development of “swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defenses,” to complement the British fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Los Angeles Times recently reported that the U.S. military has been exploring different iterations and uses of the drone swarm concept for more than a decade, using research programs bearing names such as Cicada, Gremlins and Valkyrie.
Pakistani Drone Swarms:
So far there has been very little reported about Pakistan working on drone swarms technology. However, the need for Pakistan to have such technology has become much more pressing after India's decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense system. The S-400 is reportedly very effective against even the most modern fighter jets like the F-35.
Pakistan does have low-flying terrain-hugging cruise missile Babar but it is far more expensive and problematic to use in conventional war. Drone swarms offer a cheaper, better and less problematic alternative to cruise missiles.
Recent attack on Saudi oil facilities has ensured that swarming attack drones will soon be real weapons for militaries around the world. Reports suggest that some rebels in Syria have also used drone swarms to attack Russian military bases. Among the nations reportedly pursuing this technology are China, US, UK and India. It is also very likely that Pakistan will also pursue development and deployment of drones swarms with the expected deployment of Russian made S-400 missile defense system by India.