A Tiny Missile That Waits Overhead—Silent, Patient and Deadly

The U.S. Army wants a munition that can loiter over the battlefield

If a drone can circle over the battlefield, just waiting to launch a missile when its operator glimpses a target, why not eliminate the middleman by getting rid of the drone and letting the missile itself do the hanging around?

That’s the reasoning behind the U.S. Army new effort to acquire a “loitering” weapon. If the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System initiative pans out, Army platoons will have a patient, deadly missile they can launch in the vicinity of a concealed enemy. The munition does the rest of the work, patiently waiting for the bad guys to show themselves before attacking.

The Army just put out a request for information to industry and is planning to field the loitering missile by early 2015. The Army wants a munition that weighs less than seven pounds, has an endurance greater than 15 minutes and a range farther than 10 kilometers. A single trained soldier should be able to assemble and fire an LMAMS in less than two minutes.

The missile will have a combined daylight and infrared camera that will beam real-time video back to the operator. The shooter can aim the missile at set of geographic coordinates or a landmark. The LMAMS missile then circles over the area until the operator selects a target.

The missile sounds just like one of those small surveillance drones that now patrol the battlefields, except that instead of soldiers calling in an air or artillery strike to destroy any targets the robot spots, LMAMS does the killing all by itself.

The missile’s warhead should be effective against enemy soldiers and light vehicles— and with minimum collateral damage. Meaning a small blast radius. Plus, it needs to be relatively cheap. “Production unit cost will be a significant factor in any future program decisions,” the Army warned.

Robo-phobics will be glad to heat that LMAMS will not be able to select its own targets—and in fact the Army announcement specifies that “positive identification of the target shall be made prior to launch.”

However, the loitering missile will have the ability to autonomously track a target designated by the operator. If you’re picturing Wiley E. Coyote being chased down the road by a sinisterly grinning rocket, you’re not wrong.

The concept of a smart, patient missile isn’t new. Israel has its Harop loitering anti-radar missile. The cancelled U.S. Loitering Attack Munition would have had a 45-mile range and 30 minutes of waiting time. The Fire Shadow from European consortium MBDA has a similar range as LAM and weighs less than 450 pounds. The British Army was supposed to have deployed Fire Shadow to Afghanistan, but the plan was shelved.

But these aren’t missiles that you carry on your back. What is significant about LMAMS is that it must be “configurable for dismounted or mounted patrolling operations,” according to the Army.

If the concept works, its potential is enormous. A patrol that runs into trouble won’t have to wait for artillery, air strikes or high-flying missile-armed Predator drones, all of which suffer from issues of accuracy inherent in weapons that fly too fast, too high or are operated from far away.

LMAMS could be used for ambushes, or for armed reconnaissance to spot and destroy enemy ambushes. Even with its small warhead, it might make a useful emergency anti-tank weapon. Sending a missile diving on a tank’s thin top armor could induce the crew to vacate the area.

The only question is, what happens if the missile doesn’t find anything? Surveillance drones are designed to be recovered and reused. Good luck finding a rifleman eager to recover a live missile.

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