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Loitering munitions are changing the character of warfare, but militaries are failing to leverage this emerging technology across echelons.
Modern militaries like the United States appear to be pigeonholing loitering munitions into a niche tactical role, with lightweight systems designed for close combat. In contrast, other nations are likely modelling their modernisation efforts on Azerbaijan’s successful use of exquisite loitering munitions in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. While neither path to integrating this weapon is inherently wrong, focusing on a single aspect of the weapon’s potential leaves militaries with significant capability gaps. Instead, loitering munitions—like other indirect fire assets—should vary across echelons to support numerous mission sets. In turn, incorporating loitering munitions to their fullest potential requires a balance of equipment and doctrine to address the close fight, support operational campaigns, and shape the battlefield for future operations. To strengthen the management of this critical emerging technology, this article examines loitering-munitions loiter time, range, destructive capacity, and autonomy requirements across these three distinct missions.
The Close Fight
Loitering munitions designed to support the close fight are proliferating globally, including models like the US-made Switchblade 300, the Turkish Kargu, and the Polish Warmate. These systems are designed to be dispersed around the battlefield with small units and expended at rates comparable to mortar or artillery rounds. This provides leaders at the platoon or company level with an organic strike system capable of precision and beyond-line-of-sight attacks. Large quantities and low cost define loitering munitions for the close fight. As such, actual system requirements can remain minimal.
Loitering times between 15-45 minutes coupled with at least a 10-kilometre range enables the direct interdiction of enemy forces. While the soldier on the ground may argue for the most lethal warhead possible, to facilitate mass production at a low cost, this mission set only requires an anti-personnel warhead or the ability to disable a lightly armoured vehicle. Finally, autonomous capabilities or system recoverability in the absence of a target would only complicate the chaos that is the close fight. While these lightweight loitering munitions provide unique capabilities to small units, they are inherently limited, requiring enabling headquarters like battalions, regiments, and brigades to wield a medium model with enhanced characteristics.
Whereas smaller loitering munitions are becoming commonplace, very few medium systems exist outside of the US-made Switchblade 600 and the Israeli Hero-400EC. Even these, however, are limited. Destructive capacity and flexibility define loitering munitions that support campaigns. This mission set requires systems that can be airborne during the decisive points of an operation and loiter long enough for the controlling element to manoeuvre them against critical enemy assets as they unmask.
Loitering times between 1-3 hours and ranges upward of 85 kilometres provide battalions and brigades a flexible capability that is comparable to modern rocket artillery systems generally reserved for a division or a corps. Destructive-wise, these systems must be capable of destroying anything on the battlefield. This means systems or warheads that include anti-armour capabilities and optional near-vertical terminal trajectory variations. Although full autonomy is not required for this mission set, advanced anti-radiation homing is necessary for neutralising enemy air defence systems and similar radar systems. However, as advanced as these loitering munitions are compared to their more tactical variants, they should not be confused with the exquisite systems that will shape the future battlefield.
Shaping the Battlefield
The 2020 Nagorno- Karabakh war demonstrated the potential of loitering munitions on a modern battlefield. With the world watching, thanks to Azerbaijan’s information campaign and viral videos, observer nations were forced to take notice of the emerging technology. However, the market for these exquisite systems is minimal and currently dominated by the Israeli Harop and Harpy systems that can loiter for up to 9 hours. Persistence and area denial define loitering munitions for this mission set. Divisions, corps, or theatre armies can leverage these advanced systems to mirror active air coverage or deny the enemy use of operationally essential terrain.
Loitering times between 6-12 hours and ranges of 150-400 kilometres would make these systems arguably the most dangerous tool that land forces wield. While the exquisite loitering munitions must possess comparable lethality to their medium counterparts, they also need area effects options to maximise the limited number of systems covering large areas of terrain. Additionally, and distinct from simpler models, there must be autonomous options built into these systems. This extends beyond radiation detection. Instead, the ability to detect specific vehicle types and have designated human-out-of-the-loop strike areas enables ground commanders to create a modern-day no man’s land and shape the battlefield in their favour. Finally, given the cost associated with these advanced capabilities, a recoverability option for systems that do not engage a target is also a must.
While not entirely new, the incorporation of loitering munitions on the modern battlefield is changing the character of warfare. These systems are poised to become a staple of any military hoping to maintain a competitive edge, particularly those with a limited defence budget. However, simply acquiring or developing a loitering munition is not enough. To better manage this emerging capability, militaries should adapt loitering munitions to influence the close fight, support campaigns, and shape the future battlefield. Stated simply, loitering munitions must be leveraged across echelons.
Brennan Deveraux is a major in the US Army serving as a US Army Northern Command planner. He is an Army strategist and an Art of War scholar specialising in rocket artillery and missile warfare. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and the Horn of Africa and has three defence-related master's degrees, focusing his research on military adaptation and emerging technology management. The views expressed here do not represent the positions of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the US government.