Portable Attack Drones or Loitering Munitions
Thousands of so-called loitering munitions have already been fielded in Afghanistan. This realm of activity is no longer dominated by the US. While very few nations have the technology or the resources to build sophisticated combat aircraft, but literally
Thousands of so-called loitering munitions have already been fielded in Afghanistan.
WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH the term unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aerial platforms or simply drones. Today the drone is one of the most important assets of any military force not only for surveillance but also as an offensive weapon for attacking targets which are out of reach of ground forces. With precision technologies what are called loitering munitions are becoming the favourite weapons of the armies all over the world. Whether you label them as hand-held cruise missiles, pocket artillery or miniature air force, loitering munitions will be – and in some instances already are—part of the arsenal of the modern warfighter. This is a logical addition to the way unmanned systems are becoming so essential in contemporary warfare. There is also widespread employment of these drones in the police and anti-terror forces of some countries. This article gives a bird’seye view of the trends, in this respect, in the armed forces of the world.
Thousands of so-called loitering munitions have already been fielded in Afghanistan. This realm of activity is no longer dominated by the US. While very few nations have the technology or the resources to build sophisticated combat aircraft, but literally anybody can make a small drone. Some are already in production in various parts of the world. In the US, the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System has been initiated and is progressing slowly.
Some of the miniature drones in use are given below with their known characteristics which make them suitable as loitering munitions.
The tube-launched miniature tactical armed drone Switchblade went into operation with the US Army in September 2012. The AeroVironment Switchblade Kamizaze drone can be carried in a soldier’s backpack and fired from a mortar-like launch tube. The Switchblade weighs less than five pounds and its electric propulsion is near-silent. It is tube-launched, with flickout wings, and can fly for more than ten minutes, sending back colour video and infra-red imagery so the operator can locate and identify a target. Once spotted, it can lock on and dive in at over 145 kmph with a warhead powerful enough to take out a pickup truck or a group of individuals with pinpoint precision from 9 km away. Being able to find and hit targets miles away from behind cover with high accuracy could alter ground combat. A squad with this capability could decimate opponents at long range without ever being seen. Switchblade can also be launched from an aircraft or even a submarine for covert strike.
Over 4,000 Switchblades have been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Switchblade has been appreciated for its accuracy, being able to hit snipers from behind cover, as well as picking out single insurgents in a crowd of onlookers/passersby.
Textron Inc. is putting forward its Battlehawk for LMAMS requirements. Battlehawk is a direct fire aerial precision guided munition system for use by small tactical units to engage non-line-of-sight targets. Among its key advantages is the system’s ability to take on an enemy from an advantageous position without exposing the operator to detection or small arms fire. Battlehawk is tube launched from a carrying case that fits easily into a soldier’s rucksack. The total system weighs 10 lbs, including the launcher, munition and fire control unit. Battlehawk features include: 30-minute endurance to enable loitering. EO/IR streaming video for target acquisition and tracking. 40mm fragmenting grenade warhead for target engagement. Flexible carbon fiber wing. Low acoustic and visual signature. 5 km reach and 2 m accuracy. Single-user operation with simple, three-step set up. Android-based fire control unit. Abort/wave off capability with selfdestruct.
Lockheed Martin has displayed an evolved version of its ‘Terminator’ loitering unmanned air vehicle, which it is offering for the US Army’s long-running ter- minator Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) programme. It was on show in model form at the Association of the United States Army conference in Washington DC, saying that it is still under competitive evaluation with the army. The
newly displayed design has been significantly enhanced since the high-explosivearmed Terminator was revealed in 2014 as a twin-engined concept.
“Terminator now collapses into a compact configuration readily capable of tube launch,” says a spokesman. “The missile preserves the general size, shape and aerodynamics of its original high performing and proven airframe design, but now gives the soldier a more man-portable and convenient deployment method.”
Israeli company uVision makes the Hero range of loitering strike drones, and the smallest, the Hero-30, fits the requirements for LMAMS. UVision President and CEO Yair Dubester has stated that the company will be competing for LMAMS with the help of an established US missile firm. The Hero range have already been sold to an Israeli military customer. The company has also offered licenses to manufacture the Hero to other companies. Israel has long led the US in drones.
Hero-30 is man-pack portable and is the smallest system in the UVision family of smart loitering systems. Deployable within minutes, Hero-30 is capable of speeds of up to 100 knots and is ideal for anti-personnel missions. Some of its characteristics are:
Micro Combat Unmanned Aircraft System Warmate (Micro C-UAS Warmate) is designed in order to support the following combat operations depending on the payload in use: Surveillance, detection, recognition and identification of the objects of interest (EO/IR payload GS9). Detection and strike against the enemy personnel (EO-fragmentation charge warhead). Detection and strike against the enemy’s light armoured vehicles (EO-linear cumulative charge warhead). The selection of the mission profile is being performed by choosing the proper payload/warhead just before the system operation. The payloads are interchangeable by sharing common interfaces. Micro C-UAS Warmate can be operated as an autonomous and independent system, being transported by the army or special forces troops. The system has also the capability of being installed onboard the military vehicles, such us the terrain vehicle or armored personnel carrier. The subsystem as the Ground Control Station or Ground Data Terminal can be seamlessly integrated with the vehicle’s onboard installation making it a part of the system.
The Warmate is larger than the size specified for LMAMS at nine pounds, but it has a 30-minute endurance and a maximum speed of 145 km per hour. There are two different warheads, an anti-personnel fragmentation charge and a shaped-charge warhead. The first version is claimed to have a lethal radius of 10 metres, while the second can penetrate 100mm of steel armour. Unlike other infantry weapons, a drone can easily attack the top, rear or sides of a vehicle.
Lieutenant Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hossein Salami announced on September 15, 2015, that newly developed Iranian drone technology has the capability to fly 3,000 kilometres for reconnaissance and combat missions.
“The IRGC has a drone that has a flying range of 3,000 km round-trip and is capable of conducting reconnaissance and combat missions,” Salami said in an interview with the state-run TV. He also said that they have a unique ballistic missile that no one else has, except for perhaps Russia and the US. He said that intercepting this missile is almost impossible. The report quoted Salami as saying that “any US airbase whose airplanes can reach the Iranian airspace as well as their aircraft carriers can be targeted by Iran’s unique high precision striking ballistic missiles and drones.”
Suicide Kamikaze Drones
In April a US Army report said Iran is building a fleet of so-called “suicide Kamikaze drones,” and providing know-how on assembling these new weapons to its terrorist allies Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The report, which was cited by The Washington Times and published by the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, stated that “no aspect of Iran’s overt military program has seen as much development over the past decade as Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles”.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah have deployed drones that have penetrated Israeli airspace. Thus far, they have not caused damage.
“In a mid-February speech, regular army General Abdolrahim Moussavi outlined the [Iranian] army’s growing use of drones, with emphasis on suicide or Kamikaze drones,” according to the US Army report.
“While it is easy to dismiss the idea of a suicide drone as more symbolic than real in an age of cruise missiles and precise Predators, utilising suicide drones is an asymmetric strategy which both allows Iran to compete on an uneven playing field and poses a risk by allowing operators to pick and choose targets of opportunity over a drone’s multihour flight duration,” the report noted.
One of the most alarming developments is the homemade drones packed with explosives. Two such flying improvised explosive devices (IEDs), were apparently brought down by Kurdish YPG fighters who claim they were sent by ISIS. The drones appear to be based on the Skywalker X9 airframe, a hobby drone with a nine-foot wingspan and which ISIS has used previously for reconnaissance missions.
This highlights the fact that in 2016, almost anyone can make an attack drone. Previously, you had to be a hobbyist to build and fly a radio-controlled aircraft, and it took time and skill. Crashes were part of the learning process. Now companies like DJI market camera-carrying quadcopter drones that can be flown right out of the box by beginners, complete with stabilisation and automated GPS waypoints. Around a million quadrotor drones were sold last year.
Lockheed Martin’s Terminator UAV