Israel is converting elite infantry support companies into “seek and strike” units equipped with swarming drones to search buildings and carry out attacks. The swarm is powered by Legion-X, an “autonomous networked combat solution” developed by leading defense contractor Elbit Systems and works in close collaboration with human soldiers. Israel used swarming drones in action in 2021, making it the first nation to do so, but Legion-X is a step-change for locating and destroying targets in cluttered, built-up areas. And it is being rolled out now.
The Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 kamikaze drones which Russia is raining down on Ukraine are often described as swarming drones, but this is not quite correct. Although the drones are launched in groups, enough so that some get through even though most are shot down, the drones do not exchange information or co-ordinate their movements like a true swarm. A true swarm involves multiple drones working together as a single, coherent entity, so the whole thing can be directed by one human operator – or let off the leash altogether. Many militaries are working on this technology including the U.S., China, the U.K., India and Turkey, but with Legion-X, Israel has taken the lead.
This comes as no great surprise. Israel has always been at the forefront of military drone innovation, and in 2021 used swarming drones in operations in Gaza. Mortar support companies were re-equipped with swarm drones which reportedly gathered intelligence, located targets and carried out attacks on Hamas forces. It also provided targeting information for guided mortar weapons and carried out more than 30 “successful operations” against militants attempting to launch rockets at Israel.
The drone used then were reportedly supplied by Elbit, the company which developed the new Legion-X system revealed in a new video. Legion-X is a flexible system which can accept all kinds of new hardware, and its ability to share data between many robots in a collaborative, synchronized fashion, allowing each machine to navigate autonomously and move around without conflict.
Legion-X’s tablet interface allows an operator to specify an area and assign a number of robots – which can be a mix of different types of aerial drones and ground vehicles – which will navigate autonomously to the area. Importantly for urban operations, it can work indoors as well as outdoors. The video shows a large octocopter drone acting as a mothership to small, sensor-carrying quadcopters which take off to explore inside an apartment block. These small drones may be fitted with explosive charges as expendable loitering munitions, but this is not made explicit.
The swarm has “adaptive, complex, collective behaviors for intelligent movement, decisions, and interactions with the environment,” according to the makers. In particular, they are described as having varying levels of autonomy “from remote control to fully autonomous capabilities.” Distributed sensing, and sensor fusion means it combines and distils information collected from multiple units, so the operators is not overloaded with information. The swarm can, for example, map buildings or other terrain as it goes through them.
Legion-X’s drones can also drop off miniature sensors to provide continuous surveillance of a wide area, with data being relayed back by swarm members.
The larger members of the Legion-X ensemble are the six-wheeled robots, including the Probot, which can carry 1,600 pounds, and the larger Rook with a 2,600-pound payload. Both of these can be configured according to mission requirements, to haul supplies, carry out reconnaissance, or, as in the video, fitted with machine guns and other weapons to provide fire support for an infantry squad. They can also act as drone carriers.
The swarm has “automatic target recognition and highlighting capability” meaning that when it detects a potential target it can alert the operator and request permission to engage. In particular, “the swarm can designate CAT 2 targets in a congested and contested near-peer combat environment,” the company says.
CAT 2 targets appears to be a reference to people in civilian clothes who are directly participating in hostilities, who would typically be identified by the fact that they were using weapons and who are valid targets for military action. This is obviously relevant in situations like Gaza where militants typically attempt to blend in with the civilian populations, but would also apply to future urban combat where separating combatants from non-combatants could be a major challenge.
By putting swarming robots in the front line, the makers aim to decrease risk, providing vital information to soldiers before they make contact with the enemy — if not allowing them to locate and eliminate opponents before they were get within visual range. However it will be teamed closely with humans and there is no suggestion that Legion-X could engage targets without a human operator’s approval.
While it is easy to be dazzled by Legion-X’s hardware, this is in many ways the least significant aspect. The system is platform agnostic and has an open architecture, so any number of different drones and robots could be incorporated as needed. These might be dog-like quadruped robots or armed drones, but the makers note that Legion-X can also include robot boats and submarines. The concept of having a heterogenous swarm of ground robots and aerial drones to assist infantry units is similar to DARPA’s OFFSET project – except that OFFSET is still at the prototyping stage, whereas Legion-X is operational now.
Legion-X’s effectiveness will depend on how robust and reliable its networked communications are, and just how smart the swarm is when dealing with real-world obstacles and complications which it has not previously encountered. One slick video is not enough to declare a change in the nature of war. But Elbit’s claims are backed by battle-proven technology and operational experience. Genuine drone swarms are not just coming — they are already here.