This is CICADA. Half science project and half special access program of the highest classification, CICADA represents a new class of “swarm” drones and unmanned capabilities that are unlike anything we’ve seen in war before.

An acronym for Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft, CICADA isn’t battlefield ready, at least not yet. Still, they are the harbingers of the next wave of unmanned capabilities—disruption, deceit, surprise—in a multitude of miniatures. Military briefings label it “The Power of Many.” And with their sensor payloads and isotopic sniffers, they are entirely capable of detecting nuclear weapons. Not as a part of routine intelligence collection; but as a part of war, as the opening salvo of future war, or the closing move of disarming action. So as we spy to ensure Iran is complying with the latest round of agreements, programs like CICADA might become realities far more quickly than expected.

War planners of the future envision a swarm of CICADAs (and other mini-marvels including ground-moving “landroids”) in enormous numbers scouting over wide areas. They might not just be looking, but also jamming and cluttering, with self-forming networks to facilitate all varieties of mischievous mayhem. These simple circuit board poltergeists might be capable of disrupting command and control, spoofing radar, impeding movement and even shutting off the lights. Good to see the government acting upon their own calls for energy conservation.

The Naval Research Laboratory designed the CICADA demonstration to enable small unmanned vehicles equipped with sensor payloads to be launched from aircraft (themselves manned or unmanned), or even from precision guided munitions, and then disperse in selectable patterns around a designated target area. Flight demonstrations held at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, where CICADA launched from balloons at altitudes as high as five miles and 30 miles away, landed within 15 feet of their intended targets. CICADA has no propulsion source. Because it glides to its destination solely by receiving GPS, it is nearly undetectable. CICADA itself is merely a printed circuit board and the laboratory touts future systems as able to carry acoustic, magnetic, chemical/biological or signals intelligence sensors.

The Air Force, in its 2014 RPA Vector: Vision and Enabling Concepts 2013–2038 talks about the role CICADA and other similar nano and micros drones in an “anti-access/area denial” battlefield. In other words, when we find ourselves in conflict with a sophisticated opponent with the air defense and electronic systems to actually counter U.S. airpower:

“In A2/AD environments, air-launched nano/micro SUAS [small unmanned aerial systems] may be the best means to provide persistence at a specific location. Technologies need to be developed to allow nano vehicles to “perch,” collect, analyze, and communicate at very low power levels. Perching missions may include collections from nano-cameras, acoustic, and SIGINT in the near term. New battery technology, solar harvesting, and the ability to “borrow” from the adversary’s power grid need to be researched and applied to this group of vehicles. Further, the use of bio-mechanical technologies will require legal and doctrinal development on how these potentially lethal systems are employed.”

When war with Iran comes — if war with Iran comes — we imagine some blistering air attack and the storming of a beach. But this is a serious country with a serious military, and it is country that has been preparing for war with the United States for decades. From the 1979 Iranian revolution through today’s focus on nuclear proliferation, we have prepared conventional war plans that involve invasions a la Iraq and Marine over the beach. But such an industrial oriented up-the-front approach is never an attractive option, even in war, and in the age of cyber-everything, little soldiers like CICADA will likely be preferable.

It’s all very much in the future, yet on the shelf are other CICADAs and capabilities, that represent the non-kinetic and cyber warfare that we sometimes imagine is already here. They are here—in some form—even if they shouldn’t yet be over-estimated. They represent not just the highest levels of unmanned technologies being applied to warfare but also the desire to fight in the future without the grinding industrial carnage that old-style war represents.

[All images courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory.]