Weapons Manufacturers Focus on Miniaturizing Munitions for Unmanned Aircraft
As the Defense Department increasingly relies upon unmanned aircraft to fight insurgents, companies are developing smaller bombs that are more suitable for drones.
Larger military unpiloted aircraft, including the Air Force’s Predator and the Army’s Gray Eagle, deploy 100-pound Hellfire missiles, which are the same guided munitions fired by attack helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. But smaller drones cannot carry those weapons without severely compromising their performance and range.
“We saw there was a gap in precision weapons fired off of smaller UAVs,” said Michael Riley, senior manager in business development for advanced missiles and unmanned systems at Raytheon Co.
In an interview this week at the annual Association of the United States Army conference in Washington, D.C., he said that engineers at the company are developing a 12- to 15-pound small tactical munition that will fit on the Shadow unmanned aircraft. The free-fall weapon is based on the Griffin missile, a 33-inch, 43-pound motorized weapon developed two years ago by Raytheon. The company at the show is promoting its family of UAS weapons.
“We think there’s a very large market,” said Riley.
The Marine Corps recently released a request for information for precision weapons suitable for the Shadow. The U.S. Special Operations command earlier this year also informed contractors that it would seek miniature munitions for small UAS.
The Army so far has not expressed any intent to pursue UAS-specific weapons. But Raytheon officials said that could change once a customer comes forward and demonstrates the utility of the system.
“The market is based on what the war fighter needs,” said Riley. “Is it smart or is it feasible to keep shooting $100,000 Hellfires if guys are riding bicycles?” Launching something smaller, lighter and cheaper, but just as effective as the Hellfires will give military commanders more options in future fights, he said.
So far, Raytheon has conducted static flights of the weapon aboard a company-made UAS called the Cobra. Engineers have also dropped the munition without a warhead and guided the system to a target using a laser.
“We’re looking forward to continuing the test cycle we’ve done and perhaps getting the marines interested in adopting this,” said Riley.
The small tactical munition may benefit the larger UAS, too, officials said. The Predator can carry one or two Hellfires, and the Army’s Gray Eagle can lug up to four. But because of the weapons’ weight, the aircraft lose an hour or more of endurance.
The small tactical munition would give them more firepower, officials said.
“You can carry at least seven [small tactical munitions] for every Hellfire,” said Riley. “You may give up range, but considering the target sets, that’s maybe what you want to do, and then you don’t have to come back home after you use it.”
Because the small tactical munition does not have a rocket motor, altitude is not an issue, he added.
Raytheon is continuing to fund the development and testing of the new munition. “We’re firmly behind this,” Riley said.
Company officials said that both the small tactical munition and the Griffin missile could be manufactured on the same production line. “Shared components, shared technologies make the production a whole lot easier,” said Riley. Officials said that within 12 to 18 months of receiving a contract, the company could manufacture the system in quantity.