Loitering munitions, also known as “suicide drones,” are a type of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that are capable of loitering in the air for extended periods of time, searching for and tracking a target until it is identified and engaged. Unlike traditional UAVs, loitering munitions are equipped with a warhead and are designed to crash into their targets, making them a potent weapon in modern warfare. In this blog post, we will explore how loitering munitions are redefining precision strike capabilities on the battlefield.
Precision strike capabilities have been a crucial aspect of modern warfare for decades, allowing military forces to target and engage enemy forces with a high degree of accuracy while minimizing collateral damage. However, traditional precision strike capabilities, such as cruise missiles and guided bombs, have limitations in terms of flexibility and responsiveness. They require extensive planning, targeting, and intelligence gathering, which can limit their effectiveness in rapidly changing situations.
Loitering munitions, on the other hand, offer a level of flexibility and responsiveness that traditional precision strike capabilities cannot match. They can be launched from a variety of platforms, including ground-based launchers, aircraft, and ships, and can be controlled remotely by a human operator. Once launched, they can remain in the air for extended periods of time, scanning the battlefield for potential targets.
Once a target is identified, loitering munitions can quickly and precisely engage it, thanks to their ability to maneuver in the air and their on-board sensors, which allow them to track and follow moving targets. The operator can also choose to abort the mission at any time, minimizing the risk of collateral damage.
The US has provided numerous weapons and large volumes of military aid to Ukraine. Shortly after the war began, the US decided to send Switchblade loitering munitions to the Ukrainians. Ukraine has had repeated battlefield successes with the Switchblade 300 since the United States shipped it 400 of the lighter-weight loitering munition
Switchblade loitering munitions are essentially a combination of a reconnaissance drone and guided missile.
The smaller Switchblade 300 is small enough that a soldier can carry several in a backpack, set up its launching tube within a few minutes, and fire it off, with its folded wings snapping out like its namesake knife. The soldier would then fly the 5.5-pound Switchblade 300 up to 10 kilometers, or about 6 miles, sweeping the area with the munition’s camera and looking for a target.
Once the target is spotted, Charlie Dean, AeroVironment’s vice president of sales and business development said, the Switchblade can loiter while the operator figures out the best spot to strike. Switchblade operators can even fine-tune the angle of attack to cause the most amount of damage, he added.
So far, he said, Switchblade 300s have been used to take out “soft-skin” Russian targets — fuel trucks, personnel carriers, machine gun nests, trench positions and dismounted infantry.
But when the Switchblade 600 hits the battlefield, Dean said, it could prove to be an even more devastating weapon — a “tank-killer” with a warhead as powerful as the Javelin, but controllable and able to travel a much greater range.
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Loitering Munition technology
Loitering munitions are a type of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that are designed to remain in the air for an extended period of time and then strike a specific target with precision. These systems are typically launched from a ground-based launcher or a hand-held device, and they are controlled remotely by a human operator.
One of the key technologies that enables loitering munitions is the development of small, lightweight sensors and guidance systems. These systems allow the munitions to be steered with precision towards a target, even in difficult environments such as urban areas or heavily wooded terrain.
Loitering munitions are also equipped with powerful onboard computing systems that allow them to make decisions in real-time. This enables them to navigate around obstacles, adjust their trajectory based on changing environmental conditions, and select targets based on pre-programmed criteria.
Another important technology that enables loitering munitions is the use of small, lightweight explosive warheads. These warheads are designed to be highly accurate, and they can be programmed to detonate at a specific time or location. This allows the munitions to be used to attack targets that would otherwise be too difficult or too dangerous to engage using traditional methods.
In addition, many loitering munitions are equipped with advanced communication systems that allow them to transmit real-time data back to the human operator. This data can include information about the target location, environmental conditions, and other critical information that can help the operator make informed decisions.
Looking to the future, the development and use of loitering munitions is likely to continue to evolve rapidly. New advances in sensor technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics are likely to lead to even more powerful and versatile systems. However, it is important that the ethical and moral concerns associated with the use of these systems are carefully considered and addressed. This includes developing guidelines for their use, ensuring that they are designed and operated safely and reliably, and considering the potential impact on society and the environment.
Despite these concerns, the use of loitering munitions is on the rise, with several countries developing and deploying their own versions. For example, Israel’s Harop loitering munition has been used in conflicts in the Middle East, while Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 has seen action in Syria and Libya. The United States has also developed its own loitering munition, the AeroVironment Switchblade.
Recent Loitering Munitions
There are several examples of loitering munitions that have been developed and used by military forces around the world. Here are a few examples:
- Harop: The Harop is a loitering munition developed by Israel Aerospace Industries. It is designed to attack ground targets, including radar stations, air defense systems, and other high-value targets. The Harop is launched from a ground-based launcher, and it can remain airborne for up to six hours.
- Bayraktar TB2: The Bayraktar TB2 is a loitering munition developed by Turkish defense contractor Baykar. It is a drone that is equipped with a high-resolution camera and a laser-guided missile. The Bayraktar TB2 has been used by the Turkish military in several conflicts, including the conflict in Syria.
- AeroVironment Switchblade: The AeroVironment Switchblade is a loitering munition developed by the U.S.-based company AeroVironment. It is a small, portable drone that can be launched from a tube and controlled remotely by a human operator. The Switchblade is designed to attack small, high-value targets such as snipers or enemy combatants.
- IAI Green Dragon: The IAI Green Dragon is a loitering munition developed by Israel Aerospace Industries. It is a small, lightweight drone that is equipped with a video camera and a small explosive warhead. The Green Dragon can be launched from a variety of platforms, including ground-based launchers, aircraft, and ships.
- China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics CH-901: The CH-901 is a loitering munition developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics. It is a small, portable drone that can be launched from a tube and controlled remotely by a human operator. The CH-901 is designed to attack ground targets, including enemy combatants and armored vehicles.
These are just a few examples of the many different types of loitering munitions that have been developed and used by military forces around the world. While they offer significant advantages in terms of situational awareness and precision strike capabilities, their use also raises a number of ethical and moral concerns that need to be carefully considered and addressed.
GlobalData’s “The Global Military UAV Market 2022-2032” report states that the global market for loitering munition segment is valued at $247m in 2022 and is anticipated to register a growth rate of 5.3% over the forecast period to reach $412m by 2032.
The use of loitering munitions in modern warfare is not without controversy, however. The ability to loiter in the air for extended periods of time and conduct precision strikes raises ethical and moral concerns, particularly when it comes to the potential for civilian casualties.
The use of loitering munitions also raises questions about accountability and responsibility. Because these systems are autonomous, there is a risk that they could make decisions that result in harm or damage, without any human intervention. This raises the question of who is responsible for the actions of these systems, and how accountability can be ensured.
In conclusion, loitering munitions are redefining precision strike capabilities on the battlefield, offering military forces a level of flexibility and responsiveness that traditional precision strike capabilities cannot match. However, the use of these weapons raises ethical and moral concerns that need to be carefully considered and addressed. As with any new technology, it is important to strike a balance between the benefits and risks, and ensure that the use of loitering munitions is guided by ethical principles and international law.