What’s that object circling the terrorist hideout?
Is it a drone? Is it a missile? No, it’s a loitering munition, otherwise known as a “kamikaze drone.”
And the U.S. Navy wants them.
Loitering munitions (the U.S. military actually doesn’t like the name “kamikaze drone”) are among the more peculiar weapons of the Drone Age. They can be described as either missiles with a drone-like capability to orbit a target area until commanded by an operator on the ground to dive into the target. Or, they are drones with warhead and a camera, that loiter over an area until ordered to take a final explosive – and self-destructive – plunge.
The U.S. Marine Corps has already ordered the AeroVironment Switchblade, a small, backpack loitering munition that rifle squads can instantly deploy to take out, say, an enemy mortar on a reverse slope that can’t be hit by the squad’s direct-fire rifles and machine guns.
Navy SEALs have something else in mind: a kamikaze drone that can be launched by their small boats. The goal is to provide “Naval Special Warfare Combatant Craft with an organic precision-strike mission package to engage targets over-the-horizon when conventional methods cannot be employed,” according to the Navy’s Request for Information (RFI), which is meant to ascertain what the defense industry can provide. The weapon is “designed to be a non line-of-sight missile system with man-in-the-loop flight controls, multi-mode seeker, loitering, and scalable effects warhead/payload options that minimizes collateral damage.”
The Navy RFI offers no desired technical specifications. But Switchblade, for example, weigh 5.5 pounds (including the launch tube), has a range of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) and endurance of 15 minutes.
The Navy’s requirement for minimizing collateral damage is important. One of the attractions of loitering munitions is their precision for delicate tasks such as urban warfare. Instead of calling in artillery or air strikes that are likely to pulverize an entire house – or a city block – the soldiers and sailors on the spot can call in their own mini-missile.
“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,” a U.S. Army program manager told me in 2015. For Navy commandos conducting a raid on a terrorist base nestled among civilian homes, that kind of precise firepower will come in handy.
Or, if enemy ships try to intercept the SEALs’ small craft, a small guided missile aimed at a key spot like the bridge of an hostile patrol boat might make the difference between escape and capture.
The Navy RFI envisions ordering about 1,200 loitering munitions over the next 10 years. Interestingly, the RFI, “while focused on currently fielded, new/up and coming, and future loitering munitions, will discover vendors interested in a unique opportunity to catalyze maritime precision strike and associated capabilities for a number of different customers.”
Who those other customers might be isn’t specified. But it’s easy to envision a variety of potential uses for a maritime kamikaze drone, such as highly accurate shore bombardment by warships, or perhaps a destroyer on blockade or anti-piracy duty can position a loitering munition over a suspicious vessel.
— Michael Peck
Image credit: Wikipedia