COLOGNE, Germany — The Royal Air Force’s experiments with drone swarms show they can overwhelm enemy defenses, and the concept would be ready for action in a war, according to the U.K. military service’s chief of staff.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Mike Wigston told the Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference 2022 in London this week that the RAF’s 216 Test and Evaluation Squadron and the Rapid Capabilities Office trialed five drone types in 13 experiments with various payloads and equipment over three years. The work yielded enough insights for the service to declare an “operationally useful and relevant capability,” using its current fleet of drones, he said.

“We are exploring new models of capability delivery and accelerated production ‘when we need them’ rather than ‘in case we need them,’ from the twin jet 3D-printed Pizookie, to commercially available large drones fitted with novel payloads, to large quadcopters,” Wigston said.

The problem of overcoming enemy air defenses is a key obstacle to employing military power from above. Planning for air operations increasingly entails ensuring that planes can fly safely in the first place, putting at risk untold amounts of money that militaries have pumped into beefing up their fleets to fourth- and fifth-generation technology.

That conundrum is on display in Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian air-defense capabilities are effectively canceling out the other side’s air power arsenal, according to Justin Bronk, a defense analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“The fact that air power has ben mutually denied, relatively speaking, in Ukraine by both sides has far more serious implications for us than for either the Russians or the Ukrainians,” he said at the London conference on July 13.

That’s because both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries are ultimately dependent on massive land manpower and artillery, whereas joint forces of the U.K. and other western powers are critically dependent on having air access and air superiority, Bronk said.

Swarming, which means throwing enough expendable drones at a defensive radar and interceptor position so as to overwhelm them, can be effective he said, but only to a point. The idea of small and cheap drones attacking air defenses by way of swarming may not be feasible because those drones lack the requisite range and speed.

“If you want things to go fast and far, they’re going to be jet-propelled and they’re going to cost a fair bit,” Bronk said.

In addition, getting drones swarms close enough to sophisticated air defenses with a range of hundreds of kilometers requires risky and potentially pricy insertion tactics that negate the widely cited cost benefit of cheap, small drones, according to Bronk.

The Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference brought together military leaders to dissect new air and space power strategies in light of lessons learned from Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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