Troops are demanding smaller unmanned aerial vehicles on the front lines, sparking efforts to develop lighter weapons for the aircraft. Now there are plans to make weapons out of the drones themselves.
Several military agencies have been evaluating technology for hand-launched drones that can strike targets in kamikaze fashion.
The Army Research, Development and Engineering Command’s aviation and missile center last year issued a request for information from industry. The Air Force’s Air Armament Center also began looking into the concept, contracting with three companies to demonstrate what could be done with these flying weapons. Tests were conducted this spring, and data from the results will help the Air Force come up with requirements for a formal lethal miniature aerial munitions system (LMAMS) acquisition program expected to begin in fiscal year 2012.
In its initial request, the Army sought information on a system that had lethal effects against “personnel in the open and personnel in moving soft-skinned vehicles (sedans, pick-up trucks) while minimizing collateral damage.” A successful product would weigh 5.5 pounds or less, have a flight endurance of more than five minutes and have a range greater than three kilometers, the request stated. An accompanying ground control station should give an operator the ability to autonomously or manually control the munition in flight, according to the document.
The Army wanted to know how much it would cost to buy up to 20,000 such systems and if there were other concepts for the same tactic.
The push behind the studies is to give front-line troops a weapon to address non-line-of-sight targets. The idea is “that you have a convoy or ground deployed unit that comes under fire either from a mortar team or machine gun team that’s just out of the range of typical weapons they have on hand,” said Donald MacArthur, chief technology officer for Innovative Automation Technologies (IA Tech), one of the companies that received a contract to demonstrate its product for the military. If “they don’t have direct line-of-sight to the targets but they have some orientation of where the fire is coming from, they can put one of these up in the air very rapidly.”
The ideal systems can be launched by hand or with a tube. The aircraft then can loiter for up to 30 minutes above a target, at which point it can be directed to speed toward the enemy and detonate.
For initial tests, the Air Force requested airframes less than 18 inches long. The aircraft and its portable ground control station were to weigh no more than 3 pounds each. Systems were tested for their ability to identify a human target at more than 300 feet above ground within 20 to 30 seconds, according to Air Force documents. A broad agency announcement on the program lists a desire to kill or incapacitate personnel within a 6.5 foot radius from the point of detonation. The same announcement said that the LMAMS requirement was being sponsored by the special operations commands of the Army and Air Force.
Neither service responded to requests from National Defense to be interviewed for this story.
It may be more accurate to describe the device as a weapons system rather than an unmanned aerial vehicle, MacArthur said.
“What is this? Is this a UAV or is it a weapons system?” MacArthur asked. “It is a weapons system,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s a natural progression from the [intelligence, surveillance and recognizance] platforms to being able to serve more of an effective need.”
At a recent conference, MacArthur heard a military official say that it would be nice to be able to strap a block of C-4 explosive to a Raven. That kind of thinking is now leading to programs of record like LMAMS, MacArthur said.
Headed by MacArthur and his wife Erica, IA Tech is a relatively young company that has a suite of unmanned systems with wingspans ranging from 36 inches up to 10 feet. The product they used for the LMAMS program is called the SkyStinger. It is about 20 inches long, weighs 4 pounds and has a 40-inch wingspan. The system takes flight after a user throws it into the air. It can cruise at 60 mph and accelerate up to 80 mph.
Textron Systems Corp. and California’s AeroVironment also took part in the recent tests. Textron declined to comment for this story, but officials from AeroVironment — which makes small drones such as the Raven, Wasp and Puma — said they have been working on their Switchblade product for about five years.
“We’ve been conducting numerous demos for a variety of customers,” said Steve Gitlin, vice president for marketing strategy and communications. The company has launched Switchblade from land, air and sea environments. The system takes off through a tube with the press of a button. It transmits live streaming video back to the controller to help find the enemy. The device then can be switched into terminal guidance mode in which it flies itself into the target. It can detonate on impact or shortly before.
“It will follow the target wherever it goes,” Gitlin said.
Small unmanned aircraft are normally used by front-line squads who often find themselves in the line of fire, Gitlin said. While Raven and the others can provide these soldiers with instantaneous information, Switchblade is designed to strike.
“We believe we have a solution that is very suitable for the current threat environment,” Gitlin said. Switchblade gives front-line troops a weapon to handle immediate threats. “So they’re not going down the road to see if there are snipers or waiting for another aircraft to dispatch that sniper,” he said. “It’s a tool for dismounted infantry — something they can take out of the rucksack and launch to keep from being pinned down.”
The Switchblade’s precision can be a useful tool in current conflicts, Gitlin said. The system consists of a launching tube and air vehicle that weigh less than 10 pounds combined. The aircraft can be scaled up or down in size, he said.
In addition to the Air Force tests, AeroVironment’s kamikaze drone has caught the interest of the Army, which gave the company a sole-source award for the product. An April 2010 pre-solicitation notice stated that the service planned to buy up to 1,000 of the aircraft missiles through fiscal year 2012.
Creating suicide vehicles is just one method of weaponizing small drones.
“We’ve presented several different ways of having effects on a target, not only just using a kamikaze technique,” MacArthur said. “There are active efforts right now to investigate all ways of addressing non-line-of-sight targets. We have heard talk of other techniques of weaponizing these systems. You can get very creative. But I think that the most pressing issue is finding a solution that solves the needs of the guys out in the field.”
IA Tech has looked into putting nonlethal payloads on its small UAV platform, as well as outfitting it with reloadable ammunition. These concepts would allow for the system to be reused, MacArthur said. The drone could be outfitted with common small arms including 12 gauge and .50 caliber ammunitions, he added.
European companies also have come up with various ways to add a lethal dose to small drone operations. A Ukranian state-owned company, Ukrspecexport, recently debuted an unmanned aerial vehicle that weighs 5 kilograms. It can be launched through a tube from combat vehicles that are equipped with anti-tank missiles. It can fly for about two hours searching for enemy tanks and other targets. Once one is identified, the UAV sends a signal to the combat vehicle, which can then deploy its missiles.
France’s MBDA Inc. has developed the TiGER, or tactical grenade extended range. The system consists of a warhead containing two 40mm grenades packed inside a micro UAV outfitted with inflatable wings. The aircraft can fly up to two miles and loiter for several minutes before diving into a target.
The LMAMS program is a logical step in a trend that began more than a decade ago when the Air Force conducted a study to look at weaponizing the Predator. The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where enemy insurgents have come to be described as ghosts, has only increased the military’s appetite for adding lethal features to its spy drones. Now industry is developing lighter weapons that can be hung on smaller aircraft and carried farther into battle. It’s all about shortening “the kill chain,” one industry executive said.
The Air Force eventually concluded that the Hellfire missile was the best choice for the Predator because of its weight, low cost and precision — less than a meter aim point. Originally only a direct-fire weapon, it has evolved into the Hellfire Romeo, which can engage targets that are behind the aircraft as it flies away. Lockheed Martin eventually came up with six different warheads for the weapon. The Romeo variant integrates the capabilities of all six into a single warhead. It has been hung on the Predator and the Reaper, and now the Army has plans to put it on the Gray Eagle, its version of the Air Force drones.
A few years ago, Lockheed began looking at ways to take the Hellfire concept and guidance section and translate them to a smaller unguided rocket. The result has been DAGR, the directional attack guided rocket. It has all of the brains and capability of its predecessor but with a smaller warhead and much less weight. DAGR is a 35-pound weapon, compared to Hellfire’s 106 pounds. The lighter weapon sends targeting data the same way the heavier one does. If an aircraft can send commands to fire a Hellfire, it can do the same with DAGR.
Lockheed has been working on an even smaller weapon using the guidance section from DAGR. The 15-pound Shadow Hawk is meant for platforms the size of Shadow. The smaller drone can’t carry a 100-pound weapon or a four-pack of DAGRs, so the company has created a smaller glide weapon that engages targets the same way as the heavier ones. The company is ready to perform drop-tests with the Shadow Hawk, said Frank St. John, vice president of tactical missiles.
Like Lockheed, Raytheon also is spending its own money to fill the weapons gap for drones not big enough to carry Hellfire. The company views its solutions as an entire family, from the 500-pound and 250-pound Paveway weapons down through its joint air-to-ground munition offering, the Talon laser guided rocket and the Griffin. The latter weighs 45 pounds, allowing more of them to be carried by a Predator.
Then there are the latest efforts to put weapons on even smaller “class three” UAS — the Shadows, Hunters, TigerSharks, Vikings.
“There’s kind of a hole,” said Cody Tretschok, capture manager for small tactical munitions at Raytheon. The Marine Corps last year put out an urgent needs statement for weaponizing the Shadow, he noted, “so clearly there’s a need for that class of weapon, something in the 10- to 15-pound range.”
Raytheon has developed the small tactical munition, which is 21 inches long and weighs 12 pounds. The STM has three detonation modes — it can explode when it hits its target, when it’s still in the air or even on a delay if an operator wants to send the weapon into a building and have it blow up in a specific room. The company has designed a warhead specifically for the smaller targets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“That’s one of the challenges of new modern warfare and smaller weapons,” Tretschok said. “You’re not going against tanks and planes. We’re talking about personnel in the open or light, commercial kind of vehicles. A warhead that’s effective against a tank is very ineffective against those types of targets.”
Shadow operators can see the bad guys, but they don’t have the tools to do anything about them, he said. “If they call in a strike, it could take minutes or hours before somebody’s available. If they have the weapons right there on their platform, they can shorten that cycle.”
Raytheon last year experimented with the STM on Cobra, an experimental drone that weighs less than 100 pounds. The company performed shots with the weapon using both a semi-active laser seeker and GPS coordinates to guide the missile.
Lockheed, too, is pitching a product for the joint air-to-ground munition program, which will replace Hellfire with a new 100-pound missile. The company’s Hellfire Romeo is a bridge to the JAGM weapon, which won’t go into service until 2016 or 2017.
But as industry continues to position itself to provide weapons for smaller drones, companies have different views about the cost of lighter munitions. Raytheon officials said a reduction in size doesn’t necessarily mean a weapon will be less expensive.
“There is an interesting perception,” Tretschok said. “When you talk about weapons this size, the perception is that it’s really small so the cost must be small. But we jokingly compare it to a laptop computer. It’s got everything the big one does but a laptop doesn’t cost less than a desktop.”
Still, Raytheon wants to meet the low-cost expectation, Tretschok said. The company has hired experts more familiar with production and accounting issues than missiles to find ways to reduce costs in initial design phases.
Other companies say it is only natural that a smaller weapon costs less.
“DAGR is about a third the weight and a third the cost,” St. John said. “You’re pulling pieces out and you’re leveraging a very high-rate unguided rocket production line. So the smaller ones are cheaper.”
Cost is a big part of the game right now as companies continue to fund their own testing and development and wait for the government to come calling. If the recent crop of information requests and widespread military interest are any indication, industry may not have long to wait to see whose weapons fit on which drones, executives said.
“The need is there,” Tretschok said of the smaller munitions. “We’re trying to be proactive in developing everything right now on our own money so when the RFPs come from the users we will be ready.”