Get ready to shrink the drone war. The US Army medium-sized spy drones may soon become killers, thanks to a successful flight test by a mini-drone strapped with a 4.5kg bomb.
Raytheon, the defence giant, has been working since 2009 on what it calls a "Small Tactical Munition" — as the name suggests, it's a bomb tiny enough to attach onto the military's fleet of small to medium drones like the Shadow. Weighing 4.5kg and standing 56cm, the guided munition has the potential to expand the drone war dramatically, giving battalion-sized units that fly small drones the ability to kill people, like the remote pilots who fly the iconic Predators and Reapers do.
Now Raytheon announces that on September 16, a Cobra drone (the company's in-house equivalent of a Shadow) flew over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona carrying the latest, lightest, smallest model of the Small Tactical Munition for the first time. The flight lasted an hour. It didn't actually fire the munition at a target. (You'll notice there are no fins on the missile, pictured above, although the design includes fold-up fins.)
Even though the munition is still a while away from actually being used by the US Marines — whose request to weaponise the Shadow has prompted these tests — it's the latest milestone for the ongoing trend of miniaturising killer drones. And there are many paths in development for micro-killers. A California company called Arcturus has built its own small, 5.2m drone that it claims can fire a 4.5kg missile called the Saber. More recently, the industry leader in miniature drones, AeroVironment, rolled out an alternative model for small armed drones. Its diminutive hybrid of drone and missile, called the Switchblade, is designed to be carried in a soldier's backpack until it's launched into the sky on a kamikaze mission. Yet another design is to launch a deadly mini-drone from inside a larger drone, Russian-doll style.
The Small Tactical Munition keeps it simple. It's designed to be carried by AAI's Shadow - which means that it's not using a boutique or unfamiliar model for shrinking the drone war. It would instead put a tiny missile on proven drones that the US Army already possesses. While a Predator is about 8.2m long, with a 16.8m wingspan, a Shadow is smaller than 3.7m long, with a 6.1m wingspan.
But it's about more than just shrinking the drone war. A battalion that uses a Shadow for aerial surveillance might not have to rely on higher headquarters — or its US Air Force partners — for close air support if it can strap a bomb the size of a dumbbell to the wings of its drone. That could mean a big change in small-unit autonomy and tactics.
But the US Army and the US Marines have been working to weaponise the Shadow since 2008, and nothing's gotten out of the testing stage so far. The US Air Force has its own fleet of ever-tinier drones, some even shaped like insects. If Raytheon can sell the military on its mini-bomb — especially considering that the cash-strapped military is going to be hard up for major new weapons purchases — it may only be a matter of time before the makers of killer drones start thinking even smaller.