WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is looking for ways to rapidly buy lightweight precision munitions for unmanned aircraft systems as it burns through more expensive missiles carrying out a wide variety of missions.
The Army as a whole has identified a munitions shortfall as it responds to several major contingencies across multiple theaters of operation. Years of budget cuts resulting in slower munition production have also contributed to the growing shortage.
In addition to stockpiling more munitions, the Army is looking at trying to come up with a scalable and tailorable inventory of munitions from developing a new long-range precision-guided missile to much smaller, less expensive ones.
“We are pursuing a lightweight precision munition for unmanned systems in theater that are using a Hellfire [missile],” Col. Thomas von Eschenbach, the director of the Capability Development and Integration Directorate at the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s aviation symposium Thursday.
Hellfire was not designed for the targets Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft systems are going after, such as dismounted targets, he said. And the Hellfire missile, which is capable of taking out much bigger targets, is much more expensive than a smaller munition. Additionally, smaller munitions means more can fit into a weapons rack on the aircraft during a single mission.
The service is in the “fledgling process” of organizing opportunities for vendors with lightweight precision munitions to demonstrate capability for the Army whether it’s at ranges in the U.S. or down range, Brig. Gen. Frank Tate, the director of aviation at the Pentagon within the Army’s operations, plans and training branch, told Defense News at the symposium.
Tate, who took the post earlier this summer after serving for several years in Poland, said, “this is something that once I got back to the building and we started looking at our programs, that this is one of our ideas. Because we are burning our inventory of heavier, much more capable Hellfire missiles that are much more expensive and so what are we doing about it?”
The Army asked for white papers in February for lightweight precision munitions specifically tailored for the Gray Eagle in advance of potentially setting up a program in the same office where the Hellfire missile is resident.
“There’s already been some industry involvement in terms of people coming forward. We had 12 different vendors that originally said they thought they had something that might scratch the itch,” Tate said, “so we will try and review all of those again, narrow it down to the vendors where we think the level of risk is close enough that it may be doable on the kind of rapid timeline that we want to have.”
Tate said, ideally, the Army would buy small number of promising munitions and, based on user feedback, buy more if a certain kind is proving capable in the field.
The general added he’d be interested in trying to field munition options in as little as 18 months, but noted, “that may be overly ambitious, but that is what I want. That is the pace we need to address this problem set and to get it out the warfighter in numerous place in the world right now.”
Tate also said he wouldn’t rule out considering foreign munition offerings. “We are looking at munitions that are available across our allies as well,” he said, “especially many of our allies that fly our platforms and so there are opportunities for people that have already integrated into our same platforms munitions that we might be interested in.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.