First, don't call them "kamikaze drones."
True, the name is tempting, an evocative combination of the lethality of drones and the terror of Imperial Japan's suicide aircraft.
But William Nichols, who heads the U.S. Army's effort to develop these weapons, bristles at the name. "The word 'drone' is a complete misnomer," he said. "By Army regulations, it is categorized as a missile."
That's why the Army prefers the term "loitering munition." Yet, by any name a precision-guided weapon that orbits the battlefield until it finds a target is just as deadly.
Most prominent of emerging weapons is the Switchblade. Manufactured by AeroVironment, Switchblade is the Army's demonstration system for its Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) program. Already used on a limited basis in Afghanistan, Switchblade was originally conceived by Air Force Special Operations Command before being picked up the Army.
The GPS-guided Switchblade system, including missile and launcher, weighs just 5.5 pounds and uses the same control unit as the Raven, Wasp and Puma small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Switchblade can fit in an infantryman's pack and be fired by a two-man team or a single soldier in a pinch.
The missile has a range of up to 10 kilometers and an endurance of more than 15 minutes. Equipped with daytime and infrared cameras, Switchblade also has an "aided target tracker" that locks on to stationary and moving targets and guides the missile to the target.
Nichols, who is LMAMS product director at the Army's Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space, says Switchblade is classed as a missile because it more closely resembles weapons like the TOW anti-tank missile, rather than a UAV. "The TOW is a fly-by-[radio frequency] signal, which is much like what we're doing here [with LMAMS], except that here it's ground-to-ground and it doesn't loiter. But it still has the exact same characteristics as an operator-in-the-loop weapon."
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Switchblade is meant to strike targets beyond the range — or shielded from line of sight — of the rifles, machine guns and other weapons of an infantry platoon or squad. Armed with a 40-millimeter grenade-like warhead, an infantry unit can call in a Switchblade to knock out that mortar behind the hill, yet with much less fear of harming civilians.
"An infantry squad, even with weapons that have 400-, 500-, 600-meter or beyond range, cannot attack targets within line of sight," Nichols said. "[Switchblade] also provides a very, very low collateral damage footprint compared to mortars and other weapons at a squad or platoon's disposal. The operator has the ability to wave off this missile within approximately four seconds of detonation."
At first glance, Switchblade seems an expensive way to deliver a grenade. And it would have been, in the days when weapons were judged strictly by their lethality. But in today's small wars, a sort of anti-lethality prevails, where avoiding casualties among civilians has become more important than inflicting them on the enemy.
The Army touts the controlled firepower of Switchblade. Unlike a regular grenade, the Switchblade's warhead has a focused blast. "Right now the warhead we are using is a forward-firing shotgun-blast warhead, which gives the ability to control your collateral damage," said Nichols. "It is not a 360-degree blast. When it goes off, it is throwing those pellets on the same vector that the missile itself is traveling. It is not like a mortar or artillery round where you have to worry about backblast 360 degrees."
"You can fly this into the window of a room and have almost a 100-percent probability of not injuring anyone in the next room," Nichols added. The warhead is fused to detonate at a predetermined height, but the operator can change that height while the missile is in flight, reducing the chance of collateral damage.
If the operator pulls back on the joystick four seconds or more prior to detonation, the missile will pull out of its attack dive, and then can be retargeted against another threat. Or, the operator can simply detonate the warhead and destroy the missile in flight. Unlike a UAV, the Switchblade is not recoverable once launched.
Switchblade was fielded on an emergency basis in Afghanistan beginning in 2012. "The comments from the field are that they are satisfied with the current capabilities that we have, and that using Switchblade is an effective concept," Nichols said.
While Nichols declined to go into specifics on its use or how many Switchblades have been sent to Afghanistan, he said it enabled troops to employ firepower that otherwise would have been precluded by nearby civilians. "The most notable thing I will tell you is that, on more than a dozen occasions, the wave-off capability has prevented civilian casualties that could have been caused had we used mortars and other weapons where a man is not in the loop."
The Army's Training and Doctrine Command is currently devising the requirements for an LMAMS weapon. Switchblade is a candidate, but by no means a lock. "It is a viable system that meets urgent requirements, but it does not meet, as least as far as I know now, the emerging LMAMS requirements," Nichols said.
The competitive landscape
Another LMAMS is Textron Systems' BattleHawk, which has a range greater than 5 kilometers, endurance of more than 30 minutes, flies at an altitude of 500 feet or less, and has a speed of 100 knots on its terminal attack dive, according to Textron's data sheet. The GPS-guided missile carries a 40-millimeter warhead and weighs 10 pounds, including the launcher, missile and fire-control unit.
"The BattleHawk system in its current configuration is primarily designed to precisely engage and defeat a static or moving soft target beyond the current reach of organic squad-level weaponry," said Cathy Loughman, senior manager for business capture at Textron Systems Weapon & Sensor Systems, in an email to C4ISR & Networks.
When asked to highlight the differences between BattleHawk and Switchblade, Loughman replied that the BattleHawk has greater endurance, possesses a highly accurate warhead, and that "it is an easy-to-use system, with single-soldier operation. It takes less than 120 seconds to set up and launch."
Switchblade and BattleHawk use single-propeller missiles, but Lockheed Martin's Terminator has dual propellers, one on each wing. The company describes Terminator as being able to go from a rucksack to launch in less than 90 seconds.
Given its prominence in UAV development, it is no surprise that Israel fields several loitering missiles. Israeli manufacturer UVision unveiled the Hero family of big and small loitering munitions at the Paris Air Show in June, including the Hero 30, which weighs about 6.5 pounds, carries a one-pound warhead, has a 5- to 40-kilometer range and 30 minutes endurance, and flies at 100 knots. The company describes it as a low-noise, low-thermal signature weapon. A UVision spokesman declined to name any customers, but did say the "the Hero 30 is a valid contender for the U.S. Army. We will consider participating in the LMAMS competition."
A larger example of a loitering munition is the Harop from Israel Aerospace Industries. Weighing in at almost 353 pounds and with a 33-pound warhead and six hours of loiter time, the Harop dwarfs infantry tactical missiles like Switchblade.
Harop is based on the Harpy air defense suppression missile, which loiters over an area to home in on active radars. It shares the same ground control shelter, missile platform and launcher as the Harpy.
IAI declined to reveal its customers, though India appears to be interested; Turkey has also indicated interest in the past. However, IAI announced in June that Harop had successfully completed flight demonstrations for an unspecified foreign customer.
"The Harop demonstrated augmented capabilities in the field of observation, flight altitude and loitering, in addition to better maneuvering and target destruction," said an IAI news release. "During the exercises, the missile loitered for several hours until the target was selected. Then, with maximum precision it dived directly onto it."
It is always tempting to herald a new weapon as a breakthrough in warfare, which is why it's important to be clear on what LMAMS is not, either for reasons of technology or doctrine. It is not an armed reconnaissance vehicle dispatched by a platoon commander to scout over an area to detect and destroy enemies. "You don't fly around an area like you would a UAV, and try to find a target," said Nichols.
Nor is it an ISR platform. Though it has electro-optical and infrared sensors for day and night vision, the cameras are there so the operator can see and hit the target, rather than for reconnaissance missions. "It is not designed to do ISR, and we do not train to do ISR," Nichols said.
Then there is the question of whether an infantry squad, lacking high-level intelligence and communications, has any business flinging missiles at long ranges. "When you're getting out to 10 kilometers, you are getting beyond the area that the squad and platoon should be trying to influence," said Nichols.
Nichols foresees the possibility of launching LMAMS from a larger UAV. "I don't think you'll see anybody put a warhead on a Raven, Wasp or Shadow," Nichols said. "But you might see them put this on a Shadow, Gray Eagle or Predator."
Indeed, South Africa's Denel Dynamics is developing the Impi, derived from the Mokopa anti-tank missile. The company describes it as "suitable for light aircraft such as unmanned aerial vehicles."
Nichols expects loitering munitions will be scaled up to fulfill a variety of missions as the concept evolves. He also believes that if urban combat continues to be common in today's small wars, a tactical missile with a small warhead that doesn't inflict collateral damage will be in vogue.
For now, Nichols likens the concept of loitering munitions to the early days of aviation. The "concept is where the Wright brothers were about a year after they made their first flight, or like UAVs in the early 2000s."