Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive Lethality


In 1927, Hugo Gernsback, who is considered by many to be the father of science fiction and lends his name to the annual Hugo Awards for science fiction writing, offered a prediction about the evolution of aircraft design. He posited that aircraft would progress from fixed wing, to rotary wing, to airplanes “articulated in such a way that the entire plane can be spun around practically within its own length, and kept on circling in this small space as long as necessary.” Thus did Gernsback prefigure the advent of the loitering unmanned aerial vehicle and perhaps even its close cousin, the loitering munition.

Gernsback believed that the first step toward scientific innovation was an act of imagination. He felt that science and engineering would follow the musings of the science fiction writer or the speculative thinker, almost inexorably, saying, “In times to come there is no question that science fiction will be looked upon with considerable respect by every thinking person.”

What should today’s “thinking person” be contemplating about technology and its impact on future warfare? What would Gernsbeck tell us today about the next 100 years? He would certainly recognize the growing importance of unmanned systems, but he would likely also be contemplating how they would evolve to achieve an ever-widening array of missions and how they might function when combined into a larger system of manned and unmanned platforms. This article will explore these possibilities by focusing on loitering munitions, a form of unmanned system that will impact the character of warfare more substantially than the introduction of the machine gun did at the turn of the last century.

Loitering munitions, also known as lethal miniature aerial munitions (LMAMs), are a form of unmanned aircraft system that incorporate a warhead and can be thought of functionally as an unmanned kamikaze plane. Given their plane-like attributes, LMAMs are able to stay aloft for extended periods – thus “loitering” over a target area. They are designed principally to deliver a kinetic, or explosive, effect. Whereas the machine gun provided a manifold increase in lethality through volume of fires, loitering munitions improve lethality through the distribution of precision and multi-axis attack (attack from multiple directions) to the lowest tactical echelons of command. Additionally, whereas the effects of the machine gun were primarily localized to line of sight, a loitering munition can range across the battlefield and beyond, dispensing lethality much more widely.

The impact of loitering munitions will be revolutionary because they can attack pervasively throughout the breadth and depth of the battlefield. Many of the United States’ forward operating bases in use during the past two decades have been sanctuaries, safe from substantial attacks by adversaries. However, U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are recognizing that they are losing sanctuary to armed quadcopters and other unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States is scrambling to develop defenses against these nascent loitering munitions that are difficult to detect and target. The coming ubiquity of sensors and smart weapons, especially loitering smart munitions, means combatants and non-combatants alike will have no sanctuary immune from detection or attack.

The low cost and availability of LMAMs means we should expect them from any future adversary and not just from peer competitors like Russia and China. Israel has been a leading innovator of LMAMs and countries as diverse as China, Turkey, Poland, and South Korea, see the potential and are developing their own versions.

The Maxim machine gun was introduced in 1884, yet 30 years later its implications were still not adequately understood. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded in World War I before the machine gun’s revolutionary impact was fully appreciated. And it took still longer to develop tactics and capabilities to cope with its killing power. As with most military innovations, the machine gun and LMAMs included, the real advantage goes not to the side that leads in development of the technology, but rather to the military that recognizes the implications of the new capability and incorporates it fully into its force design, concepts of operations, tactics, techniques, and procedures. It is imperative that the U.S. adopt and incorporate LMAMs into its arsenal now if it is to attain overmatch against future adversaries. We can ill-afford a learning curve reminiscent of World War I.

Lethal Miniature Aerial Munitions: The Future of Warfare

Predecessors of today’s LMAMs such as the German Fritz X and the American Azon were developed contemporaneously during World War II. The key distinction between today’s LMAM and its antecedents is that it can be flown remotely or autonomously for a period beyond that afforded by gravity or glide.

The fundamentals of this new class of weapon are easy to understand. Miniaturization, endurance, simplicity, connectedness, autonomy, precision, and low cost combine to provide this revolutionary capability.

Miniaturization, the driver of Moore’s Law, has allowed the computer we call a smart phone to be carried in a pocket. It means more power and more capability in a smaller package, fundamentally changing how sensors and weapons can be moved, deployed, and employed. Cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk, have been in use for many decades, but miniaturization in computing power and advances in information technology now allow for much smaller and cheaper LMAMs.

LMAM flight endurance adds a temporal component far different from any other munition in history. Flight times of arrows and artillery projectiles are the closest antecedent, but their flight times were still negligible compared to those of LMAMs. Since the latter have wings and their own power, they are projectiles possessing controlled and powered flight. LMAMs are the bomber and bomb combined. How many more bombs could the U.S. military afford and effectively employ if it doesn’t need the bomber? Moreover, with the option to loiter in the vicinity of an intended target, LMAMs can strike at the most opportune time. This prompt strike capability will make LMAMs much more effective than today’s smart bombs for certain applications, such as hardened artillery or aircraft facilities. LMAMs are a perfect solution to hardened targets that are vulnerable to attack during short durations when doors or apertures to facilities are opened. The munitions’ endurance provides greater range, greater effects density, and greater survivability for the launch platform (the “archer”) which can be long gone before the LMAM it delivered engages its target. An LMAM might be likened a modern-day Sword of Damocles.

What does an artillery barrage or missile strike that can loiter for hours — or even days — mean for defense and counter-fires? Consider a historical example: The United States had great difficulty locating SCUD launchers during the Gulf War despite overwhelming technical superiority and terrain conducive to effective surveillance and reconnaissance. Imagine how much harder it would be to discover LMAMs before they are launched. LMAM launches can be very low-signature since they don’t always require a sophisticated launch system and can easily operate in complex terrain, including urban centers. Ever-increasing endurance of unmanned aerial vehicles will provide increasing opportunities to employ a multi-stage strike system in which larger vehicles can transit great distances, loiter, and then release their LMAM payloads that themselves can provide additional loiter time independently. These characteristics will allow continental powers to challenge access more economically than if they had to rely solely on missiles and traditional navies. LMAMs can be launched in great numbers from shore and engage ships in the deep blue.

LMAMs will enable all echelons of sea and ground forces to conduct three-dimensional maneuvers. An army or marine squad will be able to choose whether to maneuver and engage in a ground assault or use LMAMs to observe and attack indirectly from the air. A flotilla of small craft could engage a carrier task force and disappear before its attack is recognized. The power of combined arms has been known since Alexander the Great, but the options continue to expand with miniaturized intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities.

LMAMs also increase organic situational awareness and lethality. This increased resilience makes distributed forces more capable and less susceptible to defeat in detail. With sufficient LMAMs, the typically desired three-to-one ratio of attacker to defender could prove obsolete. A squad could use LMAMs to attack an adversary without exposing its personnel to direct fire in a direct assault.

Finally, given ever-improving computing power and energy densities in power modules, LMAMs can be made in a wide array of sizes and configurations, greatly improving their transportability and employability. Very small combatant ships can carry substantial striking power, and infantry squads can conceivably carry hundreds of LMAMs in their packs. This flexibility offers the potential to distribute forces but retain an equivalent or greater combat power density in the area of employment.

Simplicity and Cost-Effectiveness

Given all these capabilities, it may seem counterintuitive to say that LMAMs are simple in design, but indeed their computing power, sensors, power supplies, and communications subsystems are for the most part consumer-grade technologies simply adapted for a lethal purpose. Current LMAMs were designed by industry with readily available technology. Commoditized consumer technology that can displace certain complex systems, such as an F-35, is a new phenomenon.

This commoditization effect has an obvious impact on cost. Just consider the cost of an aircraft carrier, its air wing, and its escorts compared to the cost of several long-range arsenal planes capable of delivering thousands of LMAMs — tens of billions of dollars compared to tens of millions of dollars.

A nation that is able to leverage consumer technology and replace hyper-complex weapons systems with “simple” systems will have an incredible advantage. It remains to be seen whether LMAMs can be as powerful and appealing to Congress as tactical aircraft have been – particularly given that LMAMs might reduce the required number of manned aircraft.

A Worrisome Delay

It is remarkable that Israel leads the United States in LMAM innovation. U.S. military leaders, lawmakers and industry have been slow to recognize the potential of LMAMs, and Department of Defense investments are not what one might expect for such a promising capability. There are over 30 LMAM variants in use by countries from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan and many key players in between. As for the United States, an instructive example is AeroVironment’s Switchblade, which first became available in 2011. If the military followed the machine gun’s timeline from introduction to full incorporation, it would be 2041 before it adjusted its organizations, concepts of operations, and weapons systems to appropriately leverage this new capability. Of course, the pace of information transfer and technology proliferation are much different than 100 years ago, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect a 30-year gap, but what matters above all is acting first relative to one’s adversary. Given the ease with which a would-be adversary can leverage the free flow of information and technologies, a delay of even a year or two in the United States’ implementation of a family of loitering munitions and associated enablers could have catastrophic consequences. While Switchblade is currently being used in limited numbers, the full range of capabilities provided by LMAMs of varying size and composition is substantially underexploited by our forces.

State actors like Russia and Iran and non-state actors such as ISIL have gotten the message and are already using LMAMs in combat. As a weaponized unmanned aerial system, the growing consumer market for drones is providing the resources for substantial research and development relevant to LMAM improvements. One need only observe the offerings at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show to see capabilities that two decades ago would have taken many years and billions of government research and development dollars to perfect. Adversaries not encumbered by the United States’ slow and costly procurement process are leveraging these consumer technologies and have already fielded systems for which America has no counter. The revolution is upon us.

Of course, LMAMs can’t replace missiles. When instantaneous protective fires are required, a missile is still the best answer. However, LMAMs could allow for a different weapons mix by providing a greater percentage of offensive fires and reserving more costly missiles for defensive purposes. Another issue is that the longer flight time of LMAMs allows gives an adversary more time to spoof or jam its sensors and controls, thus requiring additional work to increase options for autonomous and artificial intelligence capabilities.

Conclusion: Precision Robotic Warfare 

World War I was the last time the world experienced an exploratory phase shift in technologies as significant as the one it is experiencing in these early stages of the LMAM era.

In 1917, the mechanical assembly in machine guns that fed and extracted bullets played an outsize role in increasing lethality. In 2017, the engine of revolution is the digital storage, computation, and transmission of data bits combined with miniaturization of land, air, surface, and subsurface platforms of ever-increasing mobility and endurance.

As Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., USN (Ret.) demonstrated in Fleet Tactics, the sequence of seeing first and then shooting first provides tremendous advantage by reducing an adversary’s force before it returns fire. While the fundamental advantage of shooting first remains, LMAMs provide the added benefit of enabling shooting before seeing the target. Unlike missiles, LMAMs move relatively slowly and loiter on “station,”allowing the scouting effort to continue after firing. Onboard sensors (internal to the LMAM) or cooperative off-board sensors (external sensors providing information to the LMAM) can identify targets after LMAM launch. This effectively increases the density and area of the scouting effort while allowing for prompt rapid strike from nearby loitering munitions, all while disassociating the launching platform (the archer) from the engagement sequence.

In the first year of World War I, the Germans recognized the need to tightly couple scouting and fires for greater responsiveness and precision in attack. Today, the benefits of tightly coupling sensing and shooting can be achieved internally to the LMAM, since its organic sensors can detect and engage a target autonomously or through cooperative engagement.

This is just one example of the revolutionary potential of LMAMs. While the operational impact of these munitions won’t be fully understood without more experimentation and operational experience, it is abundantly clear that these weapons will force changes in concepts of operation, fleet architecture, payloads, and platforms.

LMAMs are a revolution hiding in plain sight. Perhaps we undervalue them because they didn’t cost billions of dollars to develop, but that must change, since we are already seeing adversaries appreciate their potential. It’s time to see the revolution and exploit it to our advantage.

J. Noel Williams is a defense strategy and policy consultant in Washington, D.C.

Image: U.S. Army