Loitering munitions are the weapon systems where the munition loiters around the target area for some time and attacks only once a target is located. Such types of weapons are finding increasing footprints in modern warfare, which are intelligent, destructive and unconventional.
As a Russian soldier, tries to surf the Internet on a stolen Ukrainian smartphone, he hears a distant buzzing noise, like a swarm of bees. It gets louder — then suddenly, intense flashes light up the tent. Blasts rip through the frigid air. As he looks outside just in time to see three small spider-like “octocopter” drones, controlled by Ukrainian hobbyists lurking nearby, whiz away as acrid clouds of smoke billow from burning supply trucks.
Welcome to the world of virtual warfare.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates just how fast the battlefield is changing. Today, war is increasingly fought from a distance — virtually — by remote control, automated systems, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and social media.
In every war, battlefields have been the platform to test out new technologies. The Ukraine war is no different. While the Russians are using their home-grown technologies besides some Chinese knowledge, Ukraine is being supplied by the United States and NATO countries with some of the smartest, smallest, highly agile, and yet the most effective weapon systems.
These systems are all enabled by Artificial Intelligence (AI), which capability of detecting, analyzing and striking targets with deadly precision. Combined with data fed from satellites, some of these weapons, known as Loitering Munitions, are deciding the fate of the war.
What are Loitering Munitions?
As the Ukraine war enters the second phase, with the Russian army regrouping and planning to split the country, the US and NATO allies are gearing up to send not necessarily heavier, but far more powerful, and intelligent weapon systems, specially Loitering Munitions. What are Loitering Munitions? These are drones that could stay over a target for hours and monitor the situation on the ground, providing commanders on the ground and at more distant headquarters with tactical intelligence and awareness of conditions on the ground.
Drones can be dirt cheap but deadly. A well-aimed loitering munition can take out the C2 (command and control) of an enemy, sowing chaos and confusion. A swarm of them can even halt or stop an armoured column. These weapons are like cruise missiles, but they can wait passively in the sky near a particular area, only striking once their targets are located.
These drones enabled with Artificial Intelligence (AI), and connected with eyes-in-the sky spy satellite systems can be a deadly force against any attacking force. Technologies such as these are transforming conventional warfare, enabling even smaller militaries to strike with deadly precision and create a winning edge.
European countries are now concerned that an AI race is well underway by militaries around the world. As the world’s superpowers struggle with supremacy, rapidly developing AI technology is intensifying the escalation. We are seeing this new warfare make militaries faster, smarter, and more efficient, leading to destabilization problems around the world. Combined with drone usage, the dawn of a highly effective and deadly weapon in the form of loitering munitions has arrived.
Loitering munitions, AKA suicide or kamikaze drones are weapon systems in which the munition loiters around the target area, seeking targets, and attacking once a target is located. Some of the more advanced loitering munitions models have a high degree of autonomy. Once launched, they fly to a defined target area, where they “loiter,” using AI to scan for targets. Once a target is detected, they fly into it, destroying it on impact with an onboard payload of explosives. Hence the nickname kamikaze.
Loitering munitions are a powerful battlefield enabler providing faster reaction times when engaging concealed targets that emerge for short periods. Attacking remotely, they fit a niche between cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Perhaps the greatest challenge is the difficulty in fighting against these systems. With less awareness and warning, it is nearly impossible to defend against.
The world is seeing a rapid expansion in both the civil and military usage of these weapons. The U.S. is seeing unmanned aerial vehicles usage along the southern borders by Mexican criminal groups on the uptick. The groups are using drones to attack enemies in Mexico and smuggle drugs over the U.S. border. Operatives are stating that payloads smuggled by drones and drone attacks are both on the rise.
In 2020, loitering munitions were employed in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, a conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Center for Strategic and International Studies research reported that Azerbaijan had four sophisticated designs and more than 200 weapons at their disposal. Armenia had only a single domestic model.
Since the conflict, other militaries are taking note. In a recent Deutsche Well (DW) report, Ulrike Franke, an expert on drone warfare at the European Council on Foreign Relations stated, “You could definitely see a certain uptick in interest in loitering munitions.” Franke further stated, “We have seen more armed forces around the world acquiring or wanting to acquire these loitering munitions.”
Obviously, the big guys are taking notice as well. The first loitering munitions system appeared in Russia’s military inventory in 2019. Kalashnikov Concern announced that the Lancet UAV completed tests in July of that year. China has had loitering munitions for some time.
China recently conducted a test involving swarming loitering munitions, deployed from a box array of launcher tubes on a tactical vehicle. DW has stated that China’s latest five-year plan, places AI at the centre of research and development, with the future pointing to “intelligent warfare.”
Using AI, drone swarming will be more prevalently used by militaries to enable many drones to operate together as a lethal amalgamation. Applying the principles of mass and numbers, the enemy’s battlefield systems will be extremely vulnerable and perhaps overwhelmed, presenting increasingly serious challenges for military forces in future conflicts.
U.S. testing Man-in-the-Loop weapons
Last month, the United States Army tested new loitering munitions as part of an advanced warfighting exercise called Edge 21. Officially known as Joint Man-in-the-Loop Loitering Munitions, a network of manned and unmanned aircraft was used to locate and then prompt weapons to their targets. A trio of the loitering munitions were launched against three separate mock targets, representing air defence radar, command and control node, and a surrogate for a Russian-made air defence system.
This past February, Raytheon Company was awarded $32 million for the Autonomous Swarm/Strike – Loitering Munitions, providing work on the Coyote Block 3 (CB3) Autonomous Strike, to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision-strike capability from maritime platforms.
According to National Defense Magazine, the United States will continue to lead the pack in drone and UCAVs spending, with R&D costs at $2.2 billion last year. Experts say $98 billion will be spent worldwide over the next decade on new UAV intelligence gathering and strike capabilities.
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(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and business journalist. He has worked with Strait Times of Singapore, Business Today, Economic Times and The Telegraph. Also worked with PwC, IBM, Wipro, Ericsson.)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)