A New Dimension in Naval Warfare: Loitering Munitions

IAI HAROP System (Image: IAI)
IAI HAROP System (Image: IAI)

Recently we have begun to see some naval contracts regarding the loitering munitions. Several projects (E.g., the Israeli Navy) for the naval version of the loitering munitions are ongoing for a while, but the new contracts show us a new capability is rising for naval assets, including unmanned surface and underwater vehicles. 

On February 28, 2021, Raytheon was awarded a USD 32m contract for the Autonomous Swarm/Strike – Loitering Munitions. This contract provides for work on the Coyote Block 3 (CB3) Autonomous Strike—a rapid capability effort to achieve operational launch capability from unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and an unmanned underwater vessel (UUV). The intended concept of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures are to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision-strike capability from maritime platforms.

coyote uas raytheon - naval post- naval news and information
Coyote UAS/Loitering Munition (Image: Raytheon)

On February 1, Israeli Defense Company IAI announced that it had signed a contract with an Asian country worth over USD 100 Million for the sale of the multi-purpose ROTEM system to a foreign country, sale of the naval version of the HAROP system to the navy of a country in Asia and sale of the ground version of the HAROP system to another customer in Asia.

loitering munition is a weapon system category in which the munition loiters around the target area for some time, searches for targets, and attacks once a target is located.

Benefits of Loitering Munitions 

Loitering munitions fit in the niche between cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), sharing characteristics with both. They differ from cruise missiles in that they are designed to loiter for a relatively long time around the target area and from UCAVs, in that a loitering munition is intended to be expended in an attack and has a built-in warhead.

The use of loitering munitions could enable increased capacity to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants compared to equivalent weapons such as mortars, rockets, and small missiles. These systems’ loiter capability allows users to detect and track potential targets for extended periods of time before a strike. Loitering munitions could enable improved precision compared to equivalent weapons. 

Loitering munitions are steerable, whereas many equivalent munitions are not. 

Loitering munitions may be cheaper than some guided missiles that provide a similar level of precision. 

Various loitering munition models feature a midcourse guidance feature that allows operators to cancel an attack in mid-flight and ditch the aircraft harmlessly. Traditional rockets, mortars, and missiles do not have this feature.

How can it be used in Naval Warfare?

We haven’t seen any combat use of Naval Loitering Munitions so far. But new developments show that it is very soon that we will see Loitering Munitions in naval warfare.

The naval versions of Loitering Munitions are very similar to ground-based designs. When employed from a ship, the loitering munitions have the ability to engage targets at sea or on land. In a sea domain, these munitions could collect intelligence, assess targets, and strike. These systems could be integrated into ships’ combat management systems and used with the other onboard systems. 

It is tough for the current ship systems to defend itself against swarm attacks by small boats simultaneously. Ships have limited fire control channels (sensors) and weapons against them. These drones can help counter these kinds of threats, such as Iran’s tactics in the Persian Gulf. 

iran swarm boats - naval post- naval news and information
IRGCN Boats (Source: IRNA)

These loitering munitions could be used in amphibious warfare, attacking shore targets that can threaten their own marines. 

Besides, loitering munitions could be used as an offensive role. The swarm attacks against a target, which could even be an aircraft carrier, could severely damage it depending on the drones’ quantity. Probably it might not be sufficient to sink a major surface combatant. However, it could cause heavy damage to the sensors and weapons of the combatant. This could result in the vessel vulnerable to other types of attacks.

The new contract to Raytheon shows that the U.S. Navy plans to use these loitering munitions on USVs and UUVs. It will add a new dimension to naval warfare. Ships could face tens of drones launched from a UUV anywhere in the naval theater. 

Loitering Munitions definitely would add a huge capability to naval platforms, from small UUVs to big Amphibious Assault Ships. 

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