Watch Out: Russia's "Kamikaze" Drones Are Cheap and Deadly
Will an effective counter be invented?
Key point: Everyone is building drones and many countries are realizing cheaper, suicide ones are an effective weapon. This includes not only Russia, but America too.
Russia is testing “kamikaze drones,” or unmanned aircraft that are essentially flying artillery shells.
Factory testing of the KYB-BLA and Lancet weapons have been completed, Alexander Zakharov, chief designer at ZALA Aero, told Russian news agency TASS during a Russian defense trade show. ZALA Aero is part of famed small arms maker Kalashnikov, which is now delving into drones.
The U.S. military doesn’t like the term “kamikaze drone,” preferring to call these weapons “loitering munitions.” Whatever the name, they are small battlefield drones that are launched by an infantry platoon. Equipped with a camera, the drone can orbit the battlefield while relaying imagery to the troops on the ground. When the troops see a promising target, they can order the drone to dive into the target and detonate its warhead.
It is a technical solution to an age-old problem: how to hit an enemy on the other side of a hill, who is shielded from observation or fire by terrain. Artillery, mortars and airstrikes can accomplish this, but arranging these fires takes time. A loitering munition essentially gives infantry their own precision-guided, indirect firepower.
While the warheads on loitering munitions aren’t big—about the power of a grenade—the weapon is ideal for locating and hitting targets, such as enemy mortars, that are screened by terrain. Or, they can fly into windows to take out enemy positions during urban combat.
Zakharov described the Lancet as an intelligent multitasking weapon that can independently find a given target and hit it. "It is equipped with a television communication channel, which transmits an image in real-time and allows you to confirm the success of hitting the target.”
Unfortunately for Russia, the United States and other nations already have loitering weapons. The AeroVironment Switchblade is a 5.5-pound weapon that fits in an infantryman’s backpack. The drone-missile has a range of up to ten kilometers (six miles), a speed 63 to 100 miles per hour, and an airborne endurance of fifteen minutes. It is guided by day and night video cameras on the weapon, and GPS (AeroVironment recently announced a six-tube launcher for Switchblade).
Originally conceived by U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, and used experimentally in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a demonstration weapon for the Army’s Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) program. The Marine Corps has recently ordered its own Switchblades.
In April 2019, the Army posted a request for information on what industry can provide to meet LMAMS requirements. Some of the requirements are fairly sophisticated. For example, the weapon should have a range of at least twenty kilometers (twelve miles).
More interesting is a requirement that the loitering weapon track and hit fast-moving vehicles. “The LMAMS shall have variable velocity and be able to overtake a target that is traveling up to 50 mph within a 5 km [3 mile] range from the launch point at the time of launch,” the Army said.
Last year, the Marine Corps also put out a request for information for a loitering munition. However, the Marines wants a weapon with a range of around thirty-five miles and flight endurance of an hour or two.
When it comes to loitering munitions, the world’s leader is probably Israel. Back in the 1990s, Israel Aerospace Industries introduced the Harpy anti-radar weapon. Unlike a conventional anti-radar missile that heads straight for the target, the Harpy would loiter over a battlefield, waiting to detect an enemy radar, and then home in on it (an eighteen-pound Mini-Harpy was announced this year).
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This first appeared in July 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.