Loitering munitions are in a category of their own. They are more akin to a smart missile. Once airborne, the system is designed to “loiter” for an extended time. Loitering munitions are one-time-use weapons designed to find a target and crash into it, “kamikaze” style.
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Kamikaze Drones are also called Suicide Drones albeit the more appropriate nomenclature is Loitering Munitions. Latter is derived from their ability to loiter around in the target area for some time and take out the targets once located. Loitering munitions enable much faster reaction against hidden targets that emerge momentarily or for brief periods. This enables selective targeting without the need to place own high-value targets closer to the target area and exposing them to enemy’s long range weaponry. Loitering munitions can hunt for a target by a human-driven process from a control station, autonomous flight with authority to strike designated targets, or a combination of these methods. Although there are options for recovering some models that do not engage a target, the munition is generally assumed expended once launched.
In the 1980s, a number of programmes had begun like the ‘Harpy’ of Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) and the American integrated anti-radiation missile programme that commenced in 1982. The requirement was for a low-cost air-launched system to aid in the destruction of enemy air defence networks. The proposed unit would combine elements of cruise missiles and UAVs. It would be launched in large numbers by heavy bombers, fighters, or possibly mass ground launch systems. The American ASN-301 drone is a delta-wing aircraft with a pusher propeller that looks virtually identical to the Harpy. It is designed to fly into hostile airspace and loiter until it detects and homes on to a radar and destroys it.
The above allowed the attacking force to place relatively cheap munitions in place over suspected surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, and to attack promptly the moment the SAM battery is visible. This integrated the use of a drone as a baiting decoy with the attack role into one small and relatively cheap platform in comparison to the alternative wild weasel jet fighter. So, loitering munitions were first deployed in the role of Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) in the 1990s.
Loitering munitions were first deployed in the role of Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) in the 1990s
Loitering munitions differ from cruise missiles in that they are designed to loiter for a relatively long time around the target area, and from unarmed combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), in that, loitering munitions are intended to be expended in an attack and has a built-in warhead. Therefore, loitering munitions fall between cruise missiles and UCAVs and are also cheaper and cost effective. Further development of loitering munitions commencing early 2000s increased their strike range and loiter time. But in addition to longer range and longer loiter time, miniature versions were developed to support tactical roles; very short range battlefield systems that could fit into the backpack of frontline soldiers.
IAI’s Harop was publicly unveiled to the world for the first time in India, in the run up to the Aero India in 2009. In February 2019, the Indian Air Force (IAF) decided to add another 54 Harop drones to its fleet of around 110 of these drones, which they had renamed P-4. The Harop has a range of 997 kms and carries a 22-kg warhead. It can fly deep into enemy territory and threaten armoured vehicles and heavily fortified positions.
Harop drones were first used in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict of Ngorno-Karabah in April 2016. The Harop drones were also used to destroy a Syrian Air Defence ‘SA-22 Greyhound’ (Iranian Short-Range Air Defence Gun/Missile System) on May 10, 2018. The Ngorno-Karabakh conflict also saw extensive use of the Bayraktar TB2 drones by Azerbaijan, many of which were Israeli made though flouted as Turkish.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is witnessing the employment of ‘Bayraktar TB2’ drones, as well as the American ‘Switchblade’. Interestingly, the US categorises the Switchblade as a missile rather than a drone since unlike UAVs it is not recoverable. The appropriate terminology would, however, be loitering munitions. The American Switchblades loitering munitions are in 300, 600, and 700 series. By May 2022, the US had supplies 100 x Switchblade 300 to Ukraine. These are tube-launched with folding wings that cruise around 100 kmph, carrying cameras, guidance systems, and a warhead to dive bomb and hit the target.
In addition to longer range and longer loiter time, miniature versions of loitering munitions are being developed to support tactical roles
China had procured Harpy drones from Israel in the 1990s. In 2018, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation unveiled China’s CH-901, which was described as loitering munitions. The four feet long CH-901 weighs 20 pounds, has a speed of 150 kmph, range of 15 km and endurance of two hours. China’s subsequent loitering munitions, the WS-43 is a 500-pound weapon with a range of 60 km and an endurance of 30 minutes. In addition toChina Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, Norinco is also engaged in developing loitering munitions.
On July 20, 2022, Russia for the first time released footage of its Lancet-3 loitering munitions flying into and attacking Ukrainian targets. The two different engagements show the feed from the kamikaze drones’ front electro-optical device, first observing their targets from a distance and then rapidly closing in. However, just before their impact, another overhead drone captures the strike.
Developed by ZALA and Kalashnikov, the Russian Lancet-3 is a lightweight loitering munitions with a three-kilogram warhead and a 40-minute endurance. It is a further improvement over the KYB Kub (Cube) loitering munitions of a flying-wing design that was combat tested in Syria in 2019. The Lancet-3 has a take-off weight of 12 kgs and is launched from a rail-mounted catapult system. It has two sets of X-shaped wings that can be folded and packed into a carrier trunk. There is also footage of the Lancet-3 being tested against the Hayat Tahrir al-Shams (HTS) terrorist group in Syria.
As for India, three different types of indigenous loitering munitions were successfully tested in Ladakh at an altitude of over 15,000 feet
As for India, it has already been brought out in these columns that from March 21 to 23, 2022, three different types of indigenous loitering munitions designed and develop by Economic Explosives Ltd in partnership with the Bengaluru-based start-up Zmotion Autonomous System Pvt Ltd were successfully tested in Ladakh at an altitude of over 15,000 feet. The trials were facilitated by the Army Design Bureau (ADB) to rate their performance and safety standards. According to sources, all the three systems achieved their endurance targets after taking off from high altitude areas.
It was also brought out earlier that the Indian Army has bought 100 x WARMATE Micro Loitering Munitions from Poland for the Special Forces. With a range of 30 km, altitude 300 metres and 5.7kg payload (high explosive and thermobaric), these can be effectively used against enemy forces and lightly armoured vehicles.
It may be recalled that Pakistan-sponsored terrorists had used explosives-laden drones to carry out the attack on the Jammu Air Force Station in June 2021; the first instance of Pakistan trying to target a military installation in India using drones. Future conflicts and terrorist attacks would, however, witness increasing use of loitering munitions.