The number of incoming drones made a bigger difference to the outcome

Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingBack in 2012, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), a study out of the Naval Postgraduate School predicted what would happen if a Destroyer (DDG) came under attack from simple drones, or “flying IEDs”:

The destroyer is protected by a system called Aegis, named after the legendary shield of Athena. Aegis is a sophisticated arrangement that coordinates various radars, guns, and missile launchers into a tightly integrated defense grid. It can detect, identify, track, and intercept incoming aircraft, missiles, and other threats in seconds, with minimal oversight from its human operators.


After running a computer simulation five hundred times, the researchers concluded that with eight drones approaching simultaneously, four could be expected to get through and hit the destroyer.


Worse, if the attacking drones targeted vulnerable points like radar or missile launchers, they might leave the destroyer defenseless so that it could be sunk by larger weapons.

The study went on to look at various ways of improving the defenses, by having better radar or greater accuracy or longer range weapons. These improvements reduced the number of hits, but only up to a point. Even with all the improvements in place, the average number of hits was reduced from four to 1.3.

The researchers also found that the number of incoming drones made a bigger difference to the outcome. Even the baseline destroyer with no improvements could beat off an attack by five drones; ten would tend to overwhelm even the best defenses and score at least one hit.

A 2014 RAND study concluded that “two or three smaller RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft, drones] with less-capable sensor packages were often able to equal or exceed the performance of the larger RPAs employed singly.”


  1. McChuck says:

    Anybody who has ever played a wargame can tell you that your defenses can handle a certain amount of opposition, but when enemy numbers, regardless of quality, exceed that number, you get overrun.

    The mobs in Mogadishu back in 1993 weren’t well organized, weren’t well equipped, weren’t well trained, and weren’t well led. But there sure were a whole lot of them shooting at the Rangers.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    Calling Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s militia a mob is a bit much, but they were lightly armed and poorly trained. However, they defeated the US/UN mission to Somalia, or at least fought it to a draw.

    We’re still fighting Aidid’s grandchildren, and we still haven’t won. The war is now in its 4th decade, with no end in sight. Settling aside our Indian Wars (1607 to 1918). Somalia is the longest US war.

  3. Phileas Frogg says:

    As advances in weapon’s have improved the range and effectiveness of the individual soldier’s impact on the battlefield, the number of soldiers has increased in importance relative to the quality of any individual soldier.

    It’s the Thermopylae Principle in reverse because of weapons advancements.

    Reminds me of RTS balancing, where to effectively implement melee units developers need to give them either unrealistic speed or durability relative to the ranged capabilities of units in the game. In essence, every RTS with Melee units is just shellacking various sci-fi/fantasy paintjobs over an medieval car, and your melee units are just Knights and Men at Arms marching on javelins and bowmen.

    Few RTS’s have managed a genuine modern formula of war effectively, and don’t seem particularly popular relative to their medieval counterparts, with notable exception (Supreme Commander, Planetary Annihilation Titans, Men of War Assault Squad…)

    I think we’re naturally inclined to think on medieval/classical tactical principles. Modern War meanwhile is something of an inversion.

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