U.S. Special Operators Eye Adding Suicide Drones To Their Stealthy Speedboats

Armed with loitering munitions, the craft would be able to discreetly strike at particular terrorists or any other high-value target from the sea.

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U.S. Special Operations Command is interested in adding loitering munitions to some of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy special operations boats. The new weapons could give American special operators a new tool to strike at specific individuals and other relatively small, but important targets, in both low- and high-end conflicts, without necessarily having to actually go ashore.

The Pentagon’s top special operations headquarters validated the requirement for what is formally called the Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE) program in March 2018, according to a briefing from the Special Operations Command’s Program Executive Office-Maritime given at the National Defense Industry Association’s annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in May 2018. The Navy is now conducting feasibility studies to see what it might take to add a loitering munitions capability to the Combatant Craft Medium (CCM) and Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH) boats specifically.

“MPE is a family of standoff, loitering, man-in-the-loop weapon systems deployed on combatant craft,” according to the presentation. “[It is] capable of targeting individuals, groups, vehicles, high-value targets, and small oceangoing craft with low collateral damage.”

The full MPE program will work to develop the necessary modifications to the boats, launch system, and the munitions themselves. The U.S. Navy SEALs almost exclusively use CCMs and CCHs, as well as smaller Combatant Craft Assaults (CCA), primarily to sneak ashore to conduct various missions and then exfiltrate the area afterward. You can read about them all in more detail in this past War Zone feature.

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A U.S. Navy CCM.

The May 2018 briefing did not include any specific details about what kind of performance or other attributes Special Operations Command or the Navy are looking for in the new weapons they want to add to these boats. 

A sort of hybrid between a missile and a drone, a loitering munition is typically supposed to operate over a particular area while essentially conducting a surveillance and reconnaissance mission, but with the added ability to directly engage the enemy once it locates them. Since operators are flying these loitering munitions as they would any other drone, they get to see what it sees right up until it hits the target.

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One of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command's CCHs. There are only two of these craft in service with a third under construction.

This feature, known as a man-in-the-loop guidance system, improves accuracy by allowing the user to take control and shift the point of aim to better effect the target or account for the opponent’s movement at the very end of the weapon’s flight path. It also provides an option to abort the strike right at the last moment to avoid hitting incident civilians or if the target is no longer reachable.

The briefing slide from the 2018 SOFIC gathering shows pictures of two notional weapons, Rafael’s Spike NLOS and the member of the UVision Hero family. The former missile is not generally considered a loitering munition since it doesn’t have an ability to flying around the battlefield for an extended amount of time, but it does have a man-in-the-loop capability. Both of these firms are based in Israel, which isn't surprising as that country pioneered the use of both loitering munitions and man-in-the-loop targeting.

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An overview of the MPE program that Special Operations Command's Program Executive Office-Maritime present at the 2018 SOFIC gathering.

The Hero, however, which UVision has brought to the U.S. market with the help of American defense contractor Raytheon, is very much a loitering design. The full series includes a range of capabilities from man-portable versions, such as the six and a half pound Hero-30 with its 30-minute endurance, to the more than 275-pound Hero-1250, which the company says is suitable for striking larger, strategic targets more than 120 miles away.

The MPE programs’ focus on smaller targets, both on land and at sea, suggest that what Special Operations Command and the Navy have in mind and may be closer to the Hero-30 end of the spectrum. The weapons, along with their launch and fire control systems, will also have to fit onboard the relatively small, approximately 60-foot long CCMs or the significantly more advanced CCHs, which are only around 12 feet longer

Any defense contractor will almost certainly have to integrate their launcher in such a way as to preserve as many of the boats' low-observable characteristics as possible, too. This could require retractable turrets or small, flush-mounted vertical launching systems. UVision offers self-contained launch systems for the various Hero models that might work in a vertical launch configuration.

But the Hero series is just one of a growing number of systems that could meet the MPE program’s requirements, whatever they turn out to be in the end. Though Spike NLOS isn’t a loitering munition, Rafael recently unveiled the Spike Firefly, which combines guidance and other components from the existing missile family with a vertical takeoff and landing drone.

The system can reportedly fly for around 15 minutes, which Rafael says translated to an approximate range of nearly a mile across open ground, according to Jane’s 360. The weapon can only travel about a third of that distance if it has to maneuver through complex urban environments, though.

This might not offer the kind of stand-off range Special Operations Command and the Navy are looking for, but could serve as the basis for a more capable, extended range version in the future. American firm AeroVironment's Switchblade, also known as the Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System (LMAMS), has similarly limited endurance, but flies much faster across open terrain, allowing it to hit targets out to a maximum range of six miles.

AeroVironment is now offering a portable, six-round launcher for Switchblade that would be easy to install on either the CCM or CCH, or even carry aboard the even smaller CCA, and would give those boats the ability to rapidly strike multiple targets. With the weapon already in service with U.S. special operations forces, this could make it an even more attractive option, at least in the near term.

There are many more readily available systems, too. Israel Aerospace Industries offers both the quad-copter Rotem and the more plane-like Green Dragon, either of which would be small enough to fit onboard the special operations boats. Raytheon could potentially turn its own low-cost, disposable Coyote drone into a loitering munition, as well.

Special Operations Command and the Navy also make it clear that the MPE program will look to identify a family of weapons, which could include a number of different systems to engage different types of targets at different ranges under different conditions. In addition, Navy budget documents from 2017 indicate that the Naval Special Warfare community is interested in a system that it could employ from out at sea, but also potentially dismount from a boat and use on land.

“A fielded MPE capability will address two operational gaps: precision strike from a small surface craft within a contested environment; and a land-based, organic stand-off weapon launched from a light, tactical vehicle with considerable range, precision, terminal control, and loiter capability,” the service’s budget request for the 2018 fiscal year explains. “Such capabilities would counter multiple documented threats associated with both peer adversaries and VEOs [violent extremist organizations, such as terrorist groups].”

Regardless of what specific weapon or weapons Special Operations Command and the Navy eventually settle on, loitering munitions could significantly expand the capabilities of the CCM and CCH boats against both conventional opponents and non-state actors. With their stealthy features, the craft could sneak relatively close to shore and engage a wide variety of targets with these weapons, either from the sea or after inserting special operators with man-portable systems ashore.

The most obvious scenario is special operators moving into an area to locate, monitor, and then strike at particular terrorist or small group of militants at the best possible opportunity. This would be especially valuable when operating in and around countries, such as Somalia and Yemen, which have large littoral borders.

Coupled with a mobile sea base, such as Special Operations Command’s secretive M/V Ocean Trader, special operators in craft armed with loitering munitions could conduct missions for an extended period of time relatively close to the target area. At the same time, they would be avoiding the risks associated with sending in personnel on or over land and possibly having to establish temporary or semi-permanent facilities nearby.

David Kozdron

The special operations mothership M/V Ocean Trader with CCAs visible in some of the launch and recovery bays along the side.

Compared to manned or unmanned aircraft flying from tertiary sites potentially hundreds of miles away, these assets would be able to respond in a much more flexible manner to new intelligence or other changes in the battlespace. Depending on the exact capabilities of the chosen loitering munition, the boats and their crews could also have the ability to conduct follow-up strikes much more rapidly if the first one was unsuccessful.

At sea, the loitering munitions would be just as useful against small, hostile watercraft that could transporting small groups of terrorists or militants or smuggling weapons and other equipment to them. Combatant craft can support interdiction operations and the weapons might offer a means of stopping or even destroying boats attempting to escape a boarding party, too. 

Many of these capabilities could be just as valuable in a high-end conflict scenario, either in a confined littoral space, such as the Baltic Sea or Black Sea, or with forces distributed across a wider area with expansive waterways, such as the Pacific and the South China Sea in particular. In either of those situations, special operators could find themselves called upon to conduct reconnaissance of potential beachheads and other coastal areas ahead of larger operations.

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A CCM with a remotely-operated gun on the bow. 

The boats might also put teams ashore to hunt for high-value targets, such as enemy anti-aircraft and anti-ship defenses, radars and other long-range sensors, mobile ballistic missile launchers, and stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Those raiding parties would be able strike at targets further inland from the safety of a relative stand-off distance, which could also give them more time to get out of the area undetected. 

A loitering munition launched from the inserting boat or by the team once they hit the shore would also just provide an important and immediate if limited close air support capability for special operators who might be conducting missions far detached from traditional air support. The ability to engage small watercraft could help the boats defend themselves, or larger supporting ships, against hostile naval forces or unmanned boats.

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Another view of one of the CCHs, which SOCOM says is already capable of limited interdiction missions in its present form. 

There is a distinct possibility that the Navy and other services may be interested in the MPE program for their own regular forces, as well. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are both interested in acquiring loitering munitions to support conventional operations.

Larger, joint purchases would help spread out any cost and logistical burdens. The Army, Marines, and Special Operations Command have already teamed up to procure other weapon systems in the past.

The exact requirements Special Operations Command and the Navy had in mind for the MPE program will likely continue to evolve in the near future. But whatever loitering munitions they settle on in the end will likely turn the already capable stealthy special operations boats into deadly and discreet strike platforms.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com