Pin-Point Accuracy

A variety of loitering munitions are available for the armed forces to choose from

Mihir Paul

Loitering munitions are more significant than ever. They fit in the niche between cruise missiles and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) sharing characteristics with both. They differ from cruise missiles in that they are designed to loiter for a relatively long time around the target area, and from UCAVs in that, a loitering munition is intended to be expended in an attack and has a built-in warhead.

MBDA’s flagship loitering munition, the FireShadow being launched via catapult

Purpose built munitions are more elaborate in flight and control capabilities, warhead size and design, and onboard sensors for locating targets. Some loitering munitions use a human operator to locate targets whereas others, such as IAI Harop, can function autonomously searching and launching attacks without human intervention. Some loitering munitions may return and be recovered by the operator if they are unused in an attack and have enough fuel; in particular, this is a characteristic of UAVs with a secondary suicide mission. Other systems, such as Delilah or IAI Harop, don’t have a recovery option and are self-destructed in mission aborts.

Then there are loitering munitions like MBDA’s FireShadow. It is designed to loiter above the battlefield for up to six hours before attacking stationary or mobile targets. The FireShadow weighs less than 200 kg and is relatively low-cost. It is surface-launched and has a range of approximately 100 km; it can fly to a target area and then loiter for approximately six hours before precision attack on a specific target. Test launches have been performed from a trailer on land.

Today, many loitering munitions are marketed for infantry use because they offer ground forces greater precision than, for example, a mortar. Use of loitering munitions enables an increased capacity to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants compared to equivalent weapons such as mortars, rockets, and small missiles. The loitering capability of these systems allows users to detect and track potential targets for extended periods of time before a strike. Loitering munitions enable improved precision compared to equivalent weapons. For example, the AeroVironment Switchblade creates a forward-facing blast that makes the detonation more targeted than a grenade, which creates a 360-degree blast. Loitering munitions are steerable, whereas many equivalent munitions are not.

IAI Harop or Harpy 2

The IAI Harop or IAI Harpy 2 is a loitering munition developed by the MBT division of Israel Aerospace Industries. It is an anti-radiation drone that can autonomously home in on radio emissions. Rather than holding a separate high-explosive warhead, the drone itself is the main munition. This Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD)-optimised loitering munition is designed to loiter the battlefield and attack targets by self-destructing into them. The drone can either operate fully autonomously, using its anti-radar homing system, or it can take a human-in-the-loop mode. If a target is not engaged, the drone will return and land itself back at base.

It has been designed to minimise its radar-signature through stealth (low-observability). This anti-radiation drone is designed to target enemy air-defence systems in the first line of attack, as the small drone (with its small radar cross-section) can evade SAMs and radar detection systems which are designed to target much larger aircraft or to intercept fixed-trajectory missiles.

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