U.S. Navy SEALs Want Kamikaze Drones

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

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Is China Too Scared to Risk Its Navy in Combat?

By the time the First World War erupted in 1914, Imperial Germany had spent a fortune building a potent fleet of battleships to challenge the Royal Navy.

And what did these battleships do for most of the war? Nothing, because Kaiser Wilhelm II feared the humiliation of losing his battlefleet.

Will today’s China also hesitate to risk its vaunted new aircraft carriers?

In recent years, Beijing has invested much in its navy. Not just money, but also prestige as Chinese propaganda has crafted an image of a high-tech armada that can challenge the U.S., Japan and other nations for naval primacy in the Western Pacific.

Like the Kaiser’s battleships, the most visible symbol of this transformation is the PLAN’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, which now comprises an old ex-Soviet carrier, plus the newly commissioned Shandong – China’s first domestically-built carrier. Beijing reportedly has plans to build additional carriers, backed by new cruisers, destroyers and submarines, that has some Western experts warning that China’s naval power will overtake America’s by 2035.

“Beijing’s naval prowess has buoyed its confidence, a mindset that had been absent in previous discourse,” according to a new study of the China-Japan naval rivalry by the U.S-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“China is increasingly convinced that it possesses the means and skills at sea to bend Japan to its will. Such confidence will increase the likelihood that Beijing would act on its threat of violence. The convergence of China’s hardening national will and growing naval power thus bodes ill for the future stability of the Indo-Pacific.”

Yet Chinese leaders are also haunted by the painful defeats of China’s recent naval history. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, China’s antiquated navy was smashed by a Japanese fleet that had built to resemble Western navies. The war “arguably deprived China of a capable navy for over a century,” CSBA noted. “The naval defeat also exposed the Qing government’s incompetence and delivered a major psychological blow against the regime. It set in motion massive social turmoil, such as the Boxer Rebellion, that would grip China and eventually bring down Manchu rule. A naval loss of similar magnitude today could thus do unspeakable harm to the personal reputations of Chinese leaders and the Party’s credibility.”

As Winston Churchill said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.” Military defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and the Falklands War of 1982, resulted in revolution and the eventual overthrow of the government.

“Chinese strategists, who study the past closely, know this history well and see this correlation,” Toshi Yoshihara, who co-authored the CSBA study, told Uncommon Defense. “I suspect Chinese leaders, obsessed as they are about staying in power, would be alert to this correlation.”

CSBA argues that the U.S. and Japan can exploit this sensitivity. “The United States and Japan must possess the capacity and capability to inflict crippling losses on China’s entire naval fleet in a war at sea. A credible posture that can deliver on the promise of fleet destruction— to reprise the fate that befell the Beiyang Fleet in 1894—could go far to influence Chinese calculations and to deter Beijing.”

On the other hand, there is a danger in mirror-imaging: just because the U.S. fears humiliation if a high-value target like an aircraft carrier is sunk, doesn’t mean China is equally sensitive.

“The task before us is to better understand how the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] understand and evaluate risk at sea,” Yoshihara said. “Is the Party and the PLA more or less risk averse when it comes to the fleet? Under what circumstances would the Party leadership risk the fleet or not?”

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Think Drone Swarms Are Scary? The Newest Weapon May Be “Drone Meshes”

One potentially fearsome new weapon is the drone swarm, a flock of hundreds of small unmanned aerial vehicles working together like a hive mind to overwhelm a target.

But U.S. thinktank RAND has another idea: a “targeting mesh” of small, unarmed drones that would saturate a target area with sensors that would identify high-value targets for stand-off anti-ship missiles.

The low-cost attritable aircraft technology (L-CAAT) concept envisions small 600-pound drones equipped with short-range electro-optical cameras, synthetic aperture radars and electronic intelligence collectors. These small L-CAAT drones, naturally dubbed “kittens,” would tote a tiny 60-pound payload.

“They would only carry a sensor and a radio,” RAND researcher David Ochmanek told Uncommon Defense.

Each drone in the targeting mesh would scan a narrow slice of territory. The RAND study cites an example where 500 UAVs fly at 30,000 feet over a coverage area in the Taiwan Strait that measures 100 by 100 kilometers (62 by 62 miles).

Their drones would be equipped with cheap, off-the-shelf cameras and synthetic aperture radars, which means the probability of an individual kitten’s sensors identifying a target is fairly low. But as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. In the Taiwan scenario, RAND calculates that any given target in the coverage zone – such as a Chinese warship – would be under observation by 15 different drones, thus vastly increasing the probability of success.

In turn, the kittens would provide targeting data to 3-ton “missile truck” drones, armed with a 1,200-pound payload of stand-off anti-ship missiles that would enable them to stay out of range of enemy defenses. These larger drones would be similar to the Kratos XQ-58A, an experimental UAV that resembles a scaled-down F-35 stealth fighter. Or, the kittens could cue in missiles launched by manned aircraft, ships or land-based coastal defense batteries used by nations like Taiwan.

The kittens would be controlled by human operators, though they would have sufficient on-board AI to function if communications were jammed or interrupted. But while the kittens work loosely together, they are not a drone swarm, “This is not a ‘swarm’ in the sense of a group of objects coordinating their tactical movement,” explains the RAND study. “The UAVs are spreading out to cover the required area. They are continuously communicating with one another to ensure that they are not all concentrated in one area, but they are not otherwise attempting to coordinate their behavior.”

Significantly, the goal here isn’t target detection but rather identification. RAND reckons that a massive operation such as a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic States, would be detected by spy satellites or other surveillance platforms. But with a limited stockpile of expensive smart munitions to draw upon, the trick is figuring out which targets are worth a missile, and which should be ignored. Is that blip on the radar screen a high-value aircraft carrier or troop transport, or a small minesweeper that should be ignored?

“It’s separating the wheat from the chaff,” says Ochmanek.

Unfortunately, a flock of non-stealth drones flying at 30,000 feet will probably be easy prey for anti-aircraft missiles. “You could imagine losing several hundred air vehicles in a rather short period of time,” Ochmanek says. “If you wanted to sustain a mesh of 500 UAVs, you might have to launch 700, 800, 900 over a period of several hours.”

But flying at high altitude would keep the drones safe from anti-aircraft guns, which means the enemy would have to target them with surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Yet putting hundreds of UAVs over the target area that force the enemy to either ignore them, or expend their SAM stockpile and leave themselves vulnerable to attack by other aircraft. It’s the same problem faced by missile defense systems such as Iron Dome, where Israel found itself launching $100,000 interceptor rockets at homemade Hamas rockets that were little more than metal tubes filled with explosives.

“If the kittens can be produced at a price point of something like $300,000 to $500,000, and if we can keep them flying at high altitudes, then we don’t see a cheap way to kill them,” Ochmanek says.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Army

Flying Bomb Trucks: Will “Arsenal Planes” Make Bombers Obsolete?

Suggesting fighter and bomber pilots are truck drivers isn’t very nice. But military aircraft are essentially delivery trucks. They fire cannon, drop bombs, take photographs or haul cargo. But ultimately, their utility is a function of the payload they carry.

So if a lumbering transport aircraft can haul missiles as well as a sophisticated bomber, then isn’t it more economical to use the cargo plane?

That’s the idea behind the U.S. Air Force’s embrace of the “arsenal plane” concept in which older multi-engine aircraft, such as C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, are transformed into launch platforms for salvoes of missiles and drones. The idea is that arsenal planes will support manned aircraft by suppressing enemy air defenses.

The Air Force has just publicly announced a test of the concept. In January 2020, an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II —  a special operations transport and tanker – airdropped a wooden pallet carrying simulated cruise missiles that would have been launched in flight.

“This successful Phase I operational demonstration represents a milestone in executing a palletized munitions airdrop, which refers to the delivery of a large volume of air-launched weapons at any given time,” said the Air Force announcement. “In this case, munitions stacked upon wooden pallets, or Combat Expendable Platforms, deployed via a roller system. AFSOC used an MC-130J Commando II since its cargo area supported the release of multiple, relatively large munitions.”

“AFSOC aircrew released five CEPs rigged with six simulated munitions, the same mass as the actual weapons, including four Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range [CLEAVER] across a spectrum of low and high altitude airdrops. These long-range, high precision weapons destroy moving and non-moving targets.”

CLEAVER, under development by the Air Force Research Laboratory, seems to be some sort of unpowered glide bomb along the lines of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

But what’s interesting here isn’t the technology, which is using familiar (and the whole point of exploiting older systems to save money). It’s the concept that’s intriguing in its long-term implications.

The idea of turning transports into bombers isn’t new. Several nations did so during World War II, including the Soviet Union, which turned American Lend-Lease C-47s into bomb carriers. But the most famous example is the C-130, which the U.S. Air Force has transformed into a fearsome cannon-armed gunship since the Vietnam War. More recently, Pentagon research agency DARPA has tested the C-130 as a mothership for X-61A combat drones.

As a bomb or missile carrier, transport planes have two impressive attributes: range and cargo capacity. The tradeoff for them is lack of speed, maneuverability, armament and defensive systems. But with standoff missiles and drones, arsenal planes should be able to remain at a safe distance from enemy fighters and missiles.

Can arsenal planes replace high-performance combat aircraft like fighters and bombers? Perhaps not. There will be cases where strike aircraft have to penetrate hostile air defenses to get close enough to the target to observe or destroy it. And a clumsy four-engine cargo plane is going to need fighter and electronic warfare escorts as protection against enemy fighters and long-range anti-aircraft missiles that will try to pick off the arsenal planes.

Nonetheless, the advent of drones, smart bombs, advanced sensors and hypersonic missiles point toward a conclusion: the payload is more important than the platform. And if any platform can haul missiles and drones, then a C-130 that can haul 20 tons of cargo is going to have the edge over an F-35 that can haul 10 tons.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Tired of Jet Lag? DARPA’s Bioimplants May Help

Jet lag is nature’s reminder that while humans can fly around the world, they still leave their body clocks at home. It’s taxing enough for most of us, but particularly so for military personnel — such as pilots and special forces — who may be deployed to distant locations on short notice.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s pet research agency, thinks it has a solution: bioimplants that will not just fight fatigue and disorientation, but also stop bacteria that afflict soldiers with diarrhea.           

Home remedies for jet lag abound, such as taking melatonin tablets or adjusting a traveler’s sleep schedule before the flight. But none of them are practical for military use. “Current mechanisms for physically adapting circadian rhythms to new environments focus on extensive pre-deployment preparation, sleep hygiene, and exposure to intense light; however, these interventions require precise timing and fixed equipment that can limit maneuverability and are impractical when coordinating large numbers of people,” according to the DARPA research solicitation. “Consequently, such interventions rarely exceed the body’s natural acclimation rate of one day for every hour the clock is shifted.”

The Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) project aims to develop jet lag-fighting technology based on existing medical implants such as pacemakers, pumps and ingestible sensors. DARPA envisions a “travel adapter for the human body, an implantable or ingestible bioelectronic carrier that contains therapeutic cellular factories and biomolecules which can provide warfighters control over their own physiology. The integrated system will house multiple capabilities that typically require lengthy preparation or cold chains such as instant antibiotic production, in vivo toxin removal from ingested resources, and enhanced warfighter acclimation to jet lag or shift lag.”

And that other scourge of overseas travel: adapting to local food and water that disagrees with your tummy? DARPA has reason to fix that, too. One study found that 77 percent of troops in Iraq, and 54 percent in Afghanistan, suffered from diarrhea, with 40 percent of the victims requiring hospitalization.

“ADAPTER will manage a warfighter’s circadian rhythm, halving the time to reestablish normal sleep after a disruption such as jet lag or shift lag,” DARPA promises. “It will also provide safe food and water by eliminating the top five bacterial sources of traveler’s diarrhea.”

There may be a few obstacles to military bioimplants, such as the right of soldiers to not insert medical devices into their bodies, or the possibility that these implants could be hacked. That the ADAPTER project will span 4.5 years suggests the challenge of designing a safe, effective device to combat jet lag and bad food will be a formidable one.

Yet if successful, this is technology that many a weary traveler – military or civilian – will appreciate.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Boeing