High over Alaska last summer, the Pentagon experimented with new, secret prototypes: Micro-drones that can be launched from the flare dispensers of moving F-16s and F/A-18 fighter jets. Canisters containing the tiny aircraft descended from the jets on parachutes before breaking open, allowing wings on each drone to swing out and catch the wind. Inch-wide propellers on the back provided propulsion as they found one another and created a swarm.
The experiment was run by the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, a Pentagon organization launched in summer 2012 to figure out how to best counter growing strategic threats from China and Russia. The specifics of what the mini-drones can do are classified, but they could be used to confuse enemy forces and carry out surveillance missions using equipment that costs much less than full-sized unmanned aircraft. Video reviewed by The Washington Post shows the tiny aircraft, which weigh about a pound each, moving in packs and gaining situational awareness after sitting inert in the flare canisters.
SCO’s staff labored in the shadows since its inception, with virtually everything it did withheld from the American public. But the shroud of secrecy was lifted partially in recent weeks. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter for the first time disclosed last month the existence of some of the office’s projects while previewing his proposed 2017 budget. He called for $902 million in funding for SCO in 2017 — nearly twice what it received this year, and 18 times what it started with.