For all of the advantages that loitering munitions (LMs) offer the US and near-peer states, their true threat may lie in the remarkable ease of their proliferation. Like chemical and biological weapons, LMs are made out of publicly available materials and processes that do not require a traditional industrial base, rendering them increasingly available to any motivated non-state actor (NSA). Colonel Scott Shaw, commander of the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, has warned that the proliferation of cheap, disposable drone systems will allow NSAs to build miniatures air forces. Though they will fall well short of the range and capacity levels reached by any state actor, they will still pose a significant threat to the safety and success of US forces.
The most useful comparison is the weapon that posed the single greatest danger to American service members during the wars of the 21st century: Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Not only were they responsible for most US military casualties suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq, but their indiscriminate killing of civilian targets hampered the ability of the US to win the confidence of local populaces and of Kabul to establish its legitimacy. Additionally, they served as guardrails, forcing soldiers to travel in heavily armored convoys, take circuitous routes, and eroding the general security of US troops. However, while IEDs reduced the security of soldiers in zones under “friendly” ground and air control, bases were still relatively secure havens. LMs’ capacity to ignore traditional defensive measures and lines of attack may eliminate this advantage.
Stand-off attacks on US bases are not a new phenomenon. The most notable example occurred in 1991 when a ballistic missile struck the barracks at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing twenty-eight US servicemembers. More recently, Iranian proxies have used Sammad LMs to carry out attacks on US bases and Saudi oil installations, among other targets. The continued proliferation and sophistication of LMs will increase the difficulty of concealment, help turn concentrated, defensive positions into fatal vulnerabilities, and necessitate a new focus on passive, tactical-level defense systems that can function in an environment where there is no longer a secure rear area. On such a battlefield, defense is a near-constant struggle.
LMs do not just pose a threat but will also offer whatever country best embraces them a peerless tool as the nature of the battlefield changes in the coming decades. Saturated with sensors and long-range precision munitions, the future battlefield will likely become a diffuse arena where small-unit dispersion tactics reign and new technology, both movement and artificially enhanced decision-making, will significantly reduce the time in which decisions must be made. On this battlefield of the future, the tactically superior forces will be those that can act independently and decide and maneuver faster than their enemies. Whether carried on an infantryman’s back or launched en masse out of a plane, LMs can provide troops with unprecedented flexibility, a capacity recognized by the Marine Corps in their Force Design 2030.
Commandant Gen. Berger has stated his belief that the US must not accept a stand-off confrontation in the vast theater of the Pacific. Rather, he envisions the primary responsibility of the Corps over the coming decade as the ability to deploy small, self-sufficient groups of Marines into contested regions for non and low-confrontational work to either prevent the outbreak of war or prepare the ground in case of its occurrence. The ability to move quickly and survive with minimal support in the future is a critical challenge, but LMs can provide the Corps with vital abilities, enabling platoons to maneuver and engage in a traditional operation or stay back, scout and attack through the air, allowing the infantry squad to achieve the next evolution of combined arms as each soldier can fulfill the roles of infantry, artillery, and air power. To this end, the Marine Corps has made LMs an acquisition priority, ordering Israeli UVision’s anti-tank HERO-120 and a LAV-25 armored vehicle modified with Multi-Cannister Launchers (MCL) that carry and launch LMs. At sea, the Corps plans to mount MCLs on unmanned boats to swarm enemy ships. While lacking sufficient firepower to destroy an enemy warship, the high quantity of precise munitions fired can take out critical command and control systems. A driving force behind Gen. Berger’s vision is that despite the allure of new technology like hypersonic missiles, US strategic interests are still best served by giving soldiers the ability to perform to their maximum capacity.
This view also highlights both an advantage of LMs and a central challenge to their adoption—they are cheap and relatively simple to produce. Large, complex, and flashy pieces of equipment have historically proved irresistible to military planners, often to the detriment of their countries as the outbreak of war curtails the dream of mass-producing grand projects and reminds all of its human-centric nature. The recent alarmism around hypersonic missiles, a weapon whose advantages over existing munitions are, at best, minimal for the foreseeable future, is the most recent example of the attraction to bigger, faster, stronger that has worked with structural procurement flaws to produce projects which consume decades of development and hundreds of billions of dollars for a product of limited use due to constrained production, poor reliability, and a jack-of-all-trades approach that leaves the system, in effect, superior in nothing. Should LMs, and the broader UAV family, receive the attention they deserve, however, they can provide low-cost solutions that also perform the “dirty” jobs, like SEAD, to protect the investment in these more expensive platforms.
LMs, like any weapon system, come with their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Like all autonomous systems, they will be constantly engaged in a technological race against growing electronic countermeasures and will still be significantly outclassed in certain domains such as lethality and range. A web of problems also exists regarding LMs’ guidance-free targeting that does not require humans to designate the target nor pull the trigger. Their targeting can be fooled both by intentional countermeasures and inherent software flaws.
Beyond the ethical and legal problems that this poses, the current nature of open-source intelligence means that any mistake on the part of an LM could quickly be spread across the world in a manner impossible before the smartphone era. No longer can Moscow convince a foreign audience of its innocence as it did after the 1940 Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn Forest. Today, the reaction to Russia’s well-documented targeting of civilians during the invasion of Ukraine is instant and global, placing a new emphasis on winning the information war. An outrage of similar magnitude, even accidental, could not only affect domestic and international support for the perpetrator but may also result in a political backlash against the very use of LMs, a particular danger to operational capabilities once they have been integrated into the force.
It is the success or failure of this integration that will determine whether the US will once more find itself racing to adapt to a novel weapon, or gains a new tool of its own, one of unmatched flexibility and affordability to help tackle a growing spectrum of threats around the globe.
Austen Maggin is the Communications Director at Yorktown Institute and a graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS.