Weapons: Lethal Loitering

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October 23, 2021: Russia has had a hard time competing with Israel and the United States when it comes to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones), especially when it comes to specialized small UAVs called loitering munitions. These are smaller UAVs that can carry out aerial search for a target and, if one is found, the operator can have the UAV attack the target.

In 2019 Zara, the UAV division of the Kalashnikov company, introduced the first of three models of its Lantset loitering munitions. All versions of Lantset are small, propeller-driven UAVs that send back a video signal to the operator and carry an explosive warhead. Initially Lantset came in two sizes. Lantset1 weighs 5 kg (11 pounds), can stay airborne for 30 minutes and carries a 1 kg (2.2 pound) warhead. Lantset 3 weighs 12 kg (26 pounds), can stay airborne for 40 minutes and carries a 3 kg (6.6 pound) warhead. In 2021 a KUB-BLA maritime version was introduced that had a delta wing design with a propeller in the rear. This naval model is small, being 1.2 meters (48 inches) long with a 950mm (37 inch) wingspan. Endurance is 30 minutes and explosive payload is 3 kg (6.6 pounds). This one has not been offered for sale yet but has been flight tested and is to be equipped with a guidance system that enables groups of KUB-BLAs to operate autonomously in a swarm to attack a target or targets.

The Lantset 1 and 3 have been used in Syria several times since 2019 and were deemed successful enough for the Russian military place orders. The Zara loitering munitions have one major disadvantage compared to current Western models, they are non-recoverable. The Zara models cannot return, land and be reused like most Western models can.

Because of this Lantset only expected to get orders from the Russian military because the export market is already crowded with similar and often superior, combat-proven, loitering munitions. Because of sanctions, Russia cannot buy the foreign systems, which is just as well because the foreign competition is formidable.

Israel and the United States have been developing and using these systems for over a decade. In 2006 the U.S. developed the Switchblade UAV system and tested it in Afghanistan during 2009. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Initially, Switchblade was mainly used largely by Special Forces and other special operations troops. In 2011, after years of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblade UAVs for troop use and since then has ordered over a thousand more.

Switchblade is a one-kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery-powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same video-game-like controller as the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds). Once launched out of its shipping container, Switchblade can move at about 100 kilometers an hour and stay in the air for 15 minutes.

The hand-held controller displays the video and allows the operator to place the cursor over any point and get the GPS coordinates of that point. This can be used to call in air, artillery or missile strikes. Switchblade carries a small warhead with the same explosive effect of a 40mm grenade. Larger versions of Switchblade were developed and put to work, but the troops were satisfied with the original Switchblade.

More “troop friendly” loitering munitions were developed in the West, and in 2019 Drone40 was introduced by an Australian firm that took note of several earlier 40mm UAVs and concentrated on characteristics that were most popular with the troops. Drone40 built on two decades of earlier efforts to produce a portable recon device for infantry and was facing troops in many countries who liked what they had seen so far, but were ready for something that was better.

Drone40 looks like a longer 40mm tube-launched grenade. Grenade40 can be launched from the standard 40mm grenade launcher carried by infantry units. Once launched, or thrown, like a grenade, Drone40 stays in the air by extending four quad-copter type propellers. Using a form of UAV flight most preferred by the infantry, Drone40 can pause and hover to scrutinize areas or objects as well as enter structures, including caves. The hover ability is much more useful in built-up areas where you must look in windows or alleys. The recon Drone40 has 20-minute endurance and carries no explosives. Carrying explosives, Drone40 has a 12-minute endurance and explodes with the same effect as a regular 40mm grenade. If a recon Done40 finds a target the troops can either call in an air or artillery strike or, if the enemy is close enough, use their grenade launcher to fire 40mm high-explosive grenades. If the enemy is very close and comes into view, you can open fire using your rifles.

The standard Drone40 weighs 190 grams (6.7 ounces) while the heaviest version weighs 300 grams (10.6 ounces). The heavier versions carry larger and heavier payloads like high-explosive or armor-piercing warheads. Heavier payload versions also carry a laser designator, electronic jammer or a smoke/flash grenade. The heavier models can remain in action for at least 30 minutes. The non-explosive Drone40s can be recovered and reused after a battery recharge and resetting the quad-copter propellers inside the 40mm shell. Some repairs may be needed depending on where and how the Drone40 came down. Currently Drone40s cost about $1,000 each but as more are ordered the price is expected to go down to $500.

Israel has produced several loitering munitions and uses those as well as exporting them. For example, in 2021 the Skystriker was introduced. This is basically a small (35 kg/77 pound), very quiet propeller driven cruise missile with a two-hour endurance and capable of autonomous or operator controlled movement. Skystriker is launched from a catapult mounted on a vehicle. If Skystriker, with five to ten kg (11-22 pounds) of explosives on board, does not find a target it can return and land, using a small parachute, for reuse.

In early 2019 Israel released a video from one of its Skystriker loitering missiles as it destroyed a Russian made Pantsir mobile anti-aircraft system in Syria. Earlier in the year an older Israeli loitering munition, the Harop (Harpy 2) had also destroyed a Pantsir system in Syria. In 2018 India ordered another 54 Harop (Harpy 2) UAVs from Israel. India already has 110 of these and is obviously pleased with their performance. India purchased 110 of them for about $910,000 each back in 2009, soon after Harop was introduced for SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) and other dangerous work.

Harop had its first combat use during 2017 in the Caucasus. Developed in 2005 from the earlier (1990s) Harpy UCAV, the Harop improves on the original design by achieving better performance because it is a little longer with added outer wing extensions and a canard. Harop is 2.5 meters (8 feet, 2 inches) long, has a 3 meter (9 feet, 10 inches) wingspan and weighs 135 kg (298 pounds). Top speed is 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour. Harop is a small hybrid design UAV that can either be used for reconnaissance multiple times or once as a cruise missile. Harop is a conventional small aircraft with a cranked delta wing and propeller in the rear. Harop is a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) controlled by a remote operator and is capable of flying more than 1,000 kilometers or loitering for up to 6 hours while carrying a 23 kilogram (51 pound) high explosive warhead. It can be launched from an aircraft or from a sealed storage/launch container mounted on vehicles or ships.

Unlike the original Harpy, which was primarily designed to operate autonomously on SEAD missions, the Harop was designed to either operate autonomously (like many UAVs) or under remote control. When operating autonomously it cannot be jammed and it is sent out to detect and home in on radar signals from specific types of enemy air defense radars. In this respect it is like the classic HARM anti-radiation missile, using an anti-radar homing system to cripple enemy air defenses. Unlike Harpy, Harop can also be remotely controlled. This enables the operator to find and select static or moving targets using an onboard vidcam or FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) heat-sensing camera. While under remote control targets can be hit whether their radar is on or not. The remote-control operation uses line-of-sight communications that are effective at up to 150 kilometers from the operator. That range can be extended using another aircraft or UAV to relay the control signals farther.

Even when sent out with a warhead Harop can return and land and be reused. Harop also has a stealthy design which, in addition to its small size and quiet engine, makes it very difficult to detect by radar or infrared (heat detecting) sensors. This stealth feature was meant mainly for SEAD missions because most air defense systems have sensors meant to detect approaching hostile aircraft. If these sensors detect an approaching unidentified aircraft the radar can be promptly turned off to avoid a HARM missile or other SEAD airstrike. Modern HARM missiles get around that by capturing the location of a radar signal and them homing in on where it came from, not the signal itself.

India apparently plans to use many of its Harops against Pakistani or Chinese air defenses in wartime. Russia, Syria and Iran know from painful experience that Harop works quite well and more export orders may follow because of this. The original Harpy is still in use because when you need a SEAD capability you need as much of it as you can get. Harpy and Harop are inexpensive to maintain as reserve weapons, can easily be updated and are known to be effective.

 


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