How Loitering Munitions Can Help Counter China
“Suicide drones” are already tapped to fill various roles, but more are needed, and faster.
An effective military response to China requires “small but lethal, low signature, mobile and relatively simple-to-maintain” forces, positioned “close-up and forward,” according to a new U.S. Marine Corps operational concept and recent comments by Commandant Gen. David Berger. One of the best ways to increase small-unit lethality and counter anti-access/area-denial, or A2AD, challenges is to develop, procure, field, and integrate more loitering munitions. Allies such as Israel that produce world-class LMs can help.
Sometimes referred to as “suicide drones,” LMs are a cross between missiles and surveillance drones. They vary in size and capability: some can loiter for just 15 minutes, while others can fly for hours and reach targets a thousand kilometers away. They carry cameras to identify targets—either independently or by transmitting images to their operator—and a warhead that detonates on impact. LMs typically have low radar, visual, and thermal signatures that help them evade air defenses. They can be carried by vehicles— some even by individuals—making them easier to transport, operate, and maintain than larger drones or aircraft.
LMs combine maneuver, surveillance, and strike functions at relatively low cost. This shortens the time between detection and engagement. In a conflict, the force that can close the kill chain the quickest is likely to prevail.
That’s what happened in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, when Azerbaijan used the Harop and other Israeli-made LMs in their quick victory against Armenia. The Harop is a large LM with a flight time of six hours, a 1,000-kilometer range, and a 23-kilogram warhead. At the onset of the war, Azerbaijani forces used the Harop to strike Armenian air defenses before moving on to armored vehicles and other targets. One Armenian soldier reportedly said, “We cannot hide, and we cannot fight back.”
The war lasted just 44 days, and China and Russia undoubtedly took note. China already fields the CH817, an anti-personnel LM with a munition weighing less than two pounds; the WS-43, with a reported endurance of 30 minutes and a 20-kg warhead; and the air- or -ground-launched CH901, which can reportedly loiter for up to two hours, operate in swarms, and destroy light armored vehicles.
Russia has been developing LMs, too. In 2019, Moscow introduced the KUB-BLA, with a reported endurance of 30 minutes and a payload of two to three kilograms; and the Lantset LM, with a reported combat radius of 40 km and a diving speed of more than 300 kmh. The Russian military knows that LMs can be effective. It was largely Russian-made air defenses that took a beating from Israeli-made LMs in Nagorno-Karabakh. Israel itself has used LMs to destroy Syria’s Russian-made air defenses multiple times, facilitating subsequent aircraft strikes against Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sites.
Russia and China, who are increasingly conducting military exercises together and sharing lessons, are likely to prioritize the continued development and fielding of LMs. Accordingly, Pentagon war planners should assume that U.S. forces will likely confront LMs in any conflict with Russia and China—and not just those two. Given China’s increasingly prolific drone sales and Moscow’s longstanding arms sales prowess, the Pentagon should expect Chinese and Russian LMs to proliferate rapidly around the world.
Nor are China and Russia the only ones sprinting to develop and field LMs. Iran, which makes a variety of them, was among the first to employ them against U.S. forces. Since February, Iranian proxies are suspected of using LMs in attempts to kill Americans in Iraq, at Erbil, Ain Al-Asad Air Base, and an airfield in Harir. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said this year that the spread of small, cheap drones, of which LMs are a subset, is “the most concerning tactical development” since the advent of improvised explosive devices in Iraq.
Clearly, the U.S. military must be prepared to defend against LMs, individually and in swarms. But the Pentagon should use LMs to go on the offensive, too. LMs can help support Gen. Berger’s operational concept and address one of the most pressing challenges confronting the joint force: overcoming A2AD networks that seek to prevent U.S. military operations from operating or resupplying within a geographic area.
The U.S. military needs a mix of “stand-off” munitions that can fire from outside the A2AD bubble as well as “stand-in” munitions that can fire from within. While new classes of missiles are being developed to fill the first role, LMs could help fill the second, enabling strikes on enemy radars, air defense capabilities, missiles, and associated A2AD infrastructure.
U.S. efforts are already underway to develop LMs for U.S. fixed and rotary-wing aircraft as well as warships, greatly expanding employment options. But the Pentagon is wise not to stop there. The Army and Marine Corps should field LMs to small ground maneuver units as well, fostering the type of disaggregated force employment required in heavily contested environments.
Indeed, the Marine Corps has declared LMs to be its number one acquisition priority. In June, the Corps ordered the Israeli anti-tank Hero-120 LM, which it will use as a precision munition and surveillance tool to fulfill its Organic Precision Fires-Mounted system requirement.
As well, the U.S. military currently operates the Switchblade 300 anti-personnel LM, which can loiter for 15 minutes with a 10km range, has a warhead similar to a 40mm grenade, and saw use in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Operations Command subsequently purchased the Switchblade 600, which carries an anti-armor warhead that can destroy launch vehicles, radars, and other A2AD components. But it may not arrive until January 2023.
Many of these efforts are laudable and worthy of support. Yet U.S. forces need more LMs and faster. To that end, Israel can serve as a vital partner for the Pentagon in ensuring that U.S. warfighters have cutting-edge LMs as soon as possible. Indeed, Israel, a global leader when it comes to LMs, produces many systems including the Skystriker, Orbiter, Rotem, and the Harop, which was so effective in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Purchasing existing LMs, however, will not be enough to stay ahead of potential adversaries. The Pentagon and Israel’s Ministry of Defense would be wise to use the new U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group to identify common intelligence-informed military requirements for next-generation LMs. The allies should then combine research and development programs to field those new LM capabilities to American and Israeli forces as quickly as possible.
The development of LMs is changing the character of warfare. In the Nagorno-Karabakh War, that change took Armenian forces by surprise. The Pentagon must work urgently with allies such as Israel to support the Marine Corps’ new operational concept and ensure U.S. forces never confront a similar surprise.
Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Bradley Bowman is senior director of CMPP, where Maj. Lauren Harrison is a visiting military analyst. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.
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