Emerging Use of Loitering Munitions

Photo illus. soldiers by US National Archives
US Army (USA) Soldiers from Alpha (A) Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), Fort Stewart, Georgia (GA), armed with 5.56 mm M-4 Carbines and a FNMI 7.62 mm M240B machine gun, secure an island during an island clearing mission on the Tigris River north of Samarra, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

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Loitering munitions, also called “suicide drones,” have become a common reconnaissance and attack weapon against concealed targets that emerge for short periods without risking larger, high-value platforms. They are used by many armed forces as well as rebel movements. The French military is now interested in getting such systems too.

How does it work? The munition loiters around the target area for some time and attacks. Loitering munitions come in many sizes, with different warheads, and can be launched from a tube, by hand, or from an aircraft. A loitering munition may return to its point of origin if no opportunities present themselves, or be commanded to slam into a target at hundreds of kilometers per hour.

Loitering munitions 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 French army will be the latest ground force to add loitering munitions to its arsenal. Col. Arnaud Goujon, chief of plans at the French army headquarters, said the army is looking to add the weapon to its inventory in about six months, according to nationaldefensemagazine.org.

Israel has been reportedly using loitering munition systems developed by its defense industries, including IAI, Aeronautics, Elbit Systems, Israel Military Industries, and more.

Forces in Ukraine this year have used them against Russian vehicles, but Goujon pointed out that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 was where the first lessons were learned about their potential effectiveness. 

The French are interested in loitering munitions that fly shorter distances and carry smaller warheads, Col. Goujon said, mentioning the Switchblade loitering munition offered by the U.S. manufacturer AeroVironment. 

The proliferation of loitering munitions means the French army must also figure out how to defend against them, he added, saying that the French army has been looking at low-cost weapons mounted on turrets to protect perimeters or vehicles.