Quick Strike: The lightweight BattleHawk loitering munition is designed so a soldier can take the system from his backpack and fire within 90 seconds. A video camera built into its nose allows ground troops to pilot it over rooftops or hills. (Textron Defense Systems)
WASHINGTON — New fights and new ways of fighting require new capabilities. Designing those capabilities for unknown future combat is a complex challenge, but two attributes find utility on any battlefield: speed and precision.
With that in mind, the US armed services and their industry partners are developing a variety of lightweight, precision-guided munitions that can be carried by individual soldiers and fired quickly in urban or austere battlefields, or launched from small UAVs.
US Army units have already fielded the first generation of such a capability, having deployed AeroVironment’s Switchblade hand-launched munition to Afghanistan in the fall of 2012.
The camera-enabled, 6-pound, 24-inch-long Switchblade is small and light enough to fit in a backpack. The tube-launched UAV can be guided to its intended target using a hand-held ground control station before detonating its explosive round by simply flying into the target. The tiny killer can fly for up to 10 minutes.
Army officials confirmed in February that the Switchblade officially became lethal earlier this year, scoring several hits on enemy targets.
“It’s gained some notoriety of its own on both sides,” including among the insurgents that it has been targeting, said Col. Pete Newell, then-head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.
The Switchblade is the first take on what the service is calling the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) program. Last August, the Army issued a request for information to move forward with the program.
While an urgent battlefield request for more Switchblades in Afghanistan is winding its way through the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, the LMAMS program is asking for more than what the Switchblade can currently provide. Among other things, the service wants a munition that can loiter for up to an hour with a range of up to 6 miles.
With its eye on LMAMS as well as a host of similar requirements from the US Marine Corps and Special Operations Command, Textron Defense Systems has developed its own soldier-fired loitering munition that can be controlled from a tablet or smartphone device, allowing soldiers to change the bird’s course simply by tapping on the touchscreen.
Dubbed the BattleHawk, the 5.5-pound system has been demonstrated to the Army and Special Operations Command. It’s also gearing up for a second appearance at an annual Army field exercise at Fort Benning, Ga., early next year.
Henry Finneral, vice president for Advanced Weapons & Sensors at Textron, said the system has been designed so a dismounted soldier can take the 3.5-pound munition and the 2-pound launching tube out of his backpack and fire it within 90 seconds. The 40mm warhead also contains a dual-mode fuze, enabling either height-of-burst or point detonation.
“Our bird is fairly unique in that it has a carbon-fiber wing that wraps around the fuselage,” Finneral said, so when fired from the launch tube, the wings snap out to better control the flight. The 18-inch-long UAV can reach speeds of 100 knots, and the BattleHawk can loiter for up to 30 minutes at a range of 5 kilometers. If the bomb doesn’t find a target, it can self-destruct, Finneral said, instead of crashing and blowing up.
While these precision-strike technologies provide invaluable capabilities to the infantryman, the lightweight systems are still an added load that must be lugged around on dismounted patrols.
Well, there’s an app for that.
Instead of calling in division-level assets such as Predator UAVs, the ground forces are laying plans to attach precision munitions to small UAVs such as Ravens and Pumas, which can be controlled at the brigade level and below.
One possibility is Raytheon’s Pyros, a 13-pound, 22-inch-long, air-launched bomb with a 5-pound fragmentation warhead that has been specially designed for UAVs.
JR Smith, a Raytheon senior manager of business development, said that during testing last year with a laser targeting system, accuracy was within a meter of the target, while with GPS guidance, it came within 3 meters.
Smith said the company is aiming to have the Pyros mounted on the Army’s Shadow UAV and the Marine Corps’ RQ-21, which is still in development.
“We’ve taken a hard look at those platforms,” he said, adding that putting them on small UAVs is not as simple as just attaching a missile to a wing. Raytheon has developed a 2.5-pound launch rack and an electronic interface to link the weapon to the UAV, which has proved out on its own testbed UAV.
Testing has proved the capability as mature, Smith added, saying that “literally, it’s a matter of days to put that stuff in and start demonstrating” for potential clients.
General Dynamics has developed a version of its 81mm mortar that can be fitted on small UAVs, and has demonstrated the capability to the Army. Joe Buzzett, director of technology programs at GD’s Ordnance and Tactical Systems, said the company has fired 10 or 12 GPS-guided missiles from a Tiger Shark UAV that landed within 7 meters of the target grid.
“The guidance navigation and control has all been demonstrated,” he said.
The service could put two of the 10-pound mortars under each wing of a Shadow UAV.
The technology is there and ready to be used, industry representatives said, but as Buzzett put it, “it’s the requirements that really are what’s evolving,” as American forces move from two relatively static conflicts to unknown future battlefields. ■