It’s a common scene in many science fiction movies – a giant alien spaceship shows up, opens a door and releases thousands of tiny aircraft that attack and destroy everything that moves until someone finds a glitch in their software or a way to stop them from returning to mama for refueling and saves humanity until Jeff Goldblum is ready to do a sequel. Why don’t humans ever use this mothership-baby drones strategy? Get ready for a new movie plot because it’s coming soon from DARPA and the tiny terrors will carry the sinister name “Gremlins.”
“To help make that technology a reality, DARPA has launched the Gremlins program. Named for the imaginary, mischievous imps that became the good luck charms of many British pilots during World War II, the program envisions launching groups of UASs from existing large aircraft such as bombers or transport aircraft—as well as from fighters and other small, fixed-wing platforms—while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.”
That description of a flying aircraft carrier full of tiny-but-deadly unmanned air systems (UASs) comes from DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) itself in an announcement that Dynetics, a private defense contractor, and General Atomics, the maker of the ubiquitous Predator drones, will be competing to build the best Gremlin ‘full-scale technology demonstration system’ to be ready for testing by 2019. To win, the Gremlins must be able to be deployed, returned and reused at least 20 times. The mothership/flying aircraft carrier is currently a massive Air Force C-130 transport plane but that is expected to be replaced by a stealth bomber, enabling it to invade enemy airspace invisibly before opening its doors and dropping the drones.
And what exactly will the drones do next?
‘Within this concept of operations, a Gremlins system would provide options for delivering small Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and other non-kinetic payloads to the battlespace in a manner that is robust and responsive. Responsiveness is achieved through the use of conventional aircraft hosts to transport and launch a volley of gremlins from stand-off ranges. Furthermore, by scaling up the number of systems engaged in operations, the impact of a loss of any individual gremlin is reduced.’
The “official” word is that the drones will initially act as cheap, disposable spy aircraft. That’s it?
Of course not. The Gremlins will undoubtedly be expected to live up to their original RAF reputation – using their small size and large quantity to sneak into dangerous territories, annoy and attack enemy pilots and escape before being detected to return to their stealth mothership for fuel, more weapons and further orders.
Is the Gremlin-bearing invisible flying aircraft carrier the future of aerial warfare? No question about it – as long as the enemy doesn’t figure out how to hack the system and turn our own Gremlins against us. Unfortunately, that’s not just a great movie plot.