Secretive Army Suicide Drone Smashed Mock Air Defenses During Advanced War Games

A network of other manned and unmanned platforms helped find the targets for the classified loitering munitions to engage.

A target explodes after being hit by a Spike-NLOS missile in a US Army test.
US Army

The U.S. Army recently tested a new, classified loitering munition, a type of weapon sometimes referred to as a "suicide drone," as part of an advanced warfighting exercise called Edge 21. An experimental network of manned and unmanned aircraft was also used to first locate and then cue those weapons, officially known as Joint Man-in-the-Loop Loitering Munitions, to their targets.

Edge 21, which wrapped up recently, was a two-week-long Army-led exercise at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah that also involved elements of the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. The event was focused heavily on future aviation assets and associated concepts of operations, with the scenario revolving around simulated operations targeting enemy forces spread across a notional island chain in the Pacific. Edge 21, with Edge standing for "Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise," was intended to help inform Army's broader Project Convergence initiative. Project Convergence is exploring advanced networking and other capabilities, with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence and machine learning technology.

US Army

A US Army Polaris DAGOR ultra-light vehicle launches an Area-I ALTIUS 600 drone via the Pneumatically Integrated Launch System (PILS) during Edge 21. The Army has been using the ALTIUS 600 as a surrogate to test other still-in-development concepts of operations regarding the future use of small unmanned aircraft, including in fully networked swarms.

“This was not a canned demonstration," U.S. Army General John Murray, head of Army Futures Command, which is leading Project Convergence, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We are actually trying to make things work."

A trio of the loitering munitions were launched against three separate mock targets, on representing an air defense radar, another simulating a command and control node, and a third acting as a surrogate for a Russian-made Pantsir-S1 point air defense system. The first two targets were each destroyed by a single one of these weapons.

The Army aborted the strike on the third target after an unspecified issue left the drone out of position for what was supposed to be three near-simultaneous hits. The service recovered this munition and plans to use it again in the upcoming Project Convergence exercise, according to Defense News.

Details about this munition itself, which has also been described as a "Long Range Effect," or LRE, are highly classified, according to the Army. Aviation Week's Defense Editor and friend of The War Zone Steven Trimble wrote on Twitter last week that an official video he had been shown from the exercise showed "a large, winged" design. He also said it was ground-launched.

Trimble also wrote on Twitter that this munition did not appear to be related to a previously uncovered Army program known as Vintage Racer. Official documents describe that effort as centering around a missile capable of reaching hypersonic speeds, defined as anything above Mach 5, loaded with suicide drone submunitions. The Army has talked about using its future Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) short-range ballistic missiles, which could reach hypersonic velocity in their terminal stage of flight, as a way to deploy networked swarms of loitering munitions deep inside enemy territory. The Army would not confirm or deny to The War Zone that the weapons employed during Edge 21 were or were not in any way related to Vintage Racer, due to "the security classification of the munition."

The aforementioned name of the munition, which the Army confirmed to The War Zone and does not appear to have been previously reported, does make it clear that these munitions have man-in-the-loop control systems. This control concept, pioneered by Israel, means that an actual human operator "sees" what the drone sees through its onboard video cameras right up until the moment of impact. This allows that same individual to make fine adjustments, even very late in the weapon's terminal phase of flight, giving it increased accuracy. This also provides a way to shift it away from the target should circumstances change, such as the sudden appearance of innocent bystanders in the area.

The Army, interestingly, is also publicly in the process of integrating the Israel-made Spike-NLOS missile, another weapon with a man-in-the-loop control system, onto its AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. 

The fact that the third one of these munitions was recovered for reuse after its strike was aborted also highlights one of the other inherent benefits of some loitering munitions suicide, especially compared to more traditional missiles or precision-guided bombs. These munitions have the flexibility to carry out general intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, all the while being able to immediately prosecute any targets they might find or return to a recovery point if that search turns up empty. As such, the ability to launch unused loitering munitions again also helps save money. It's not clear how much each one of these weapons costs, but Defense News described it as "pricey." 

Regardless of the Joint Man-in-the-Loop Loitering Munition's exact design or capabilities, it is also just one part of a larger networked ecosystem that the Army is in the process of developing. During Edge 21, a manned aircraft carrying the Airborne Reconnaissance and Targeting Multi-Mission Intelligence System (ARTEMIS) sensor payload helped find the three targets in the first place. 

US Army

A modified contractor-owned and operated Bombardier Challenger 650 aircraft that the Army has been using to evaluate the ARTEMIS sensor package in recent years.

The ARTEMIS program, work on which started in 2019, emerged publicly last year and was, at least initially, installed on two modified contractor-owned and operated Bombardier Challenger 650 business jets. What complete ARTEMIS suite consists of is unclear, but it does include the High-Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES) sensor package, which features a radar, along with electronic intelligence (ELINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) systems, to "allow [for] stand-off operations to detect, locate, identify and track critical targets for the ground commander," according to an official contracting notice.

An Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone also deployed a smaller unmanned system equipped with an ISR package in mid-air, which then provided additional targeting information. The exact design and capabilities of this so-called Air Launch Effects-Large (ALE-L) drone, which L3Harris has been developing in cooperation with the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), is also classified. Defense News reported that this system had a top speed of over 200 knots and a maximum range of more than 300 kilometers (approximately 186 miles), and had only flown once before this at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in February.

The idea of MQ-1Cs flying outside of the range of hostile defenses then deploying smaller, lower-cost drones to then fly into higher-risk areas is a future concept of operation the Army Futures Command has already publicly outlined

US Army

An MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone on the ground ahead of an earlier Project Convergence exercise in 2020.

Area-I Agile-Launch Tactically Integrated Unmanned System (ALTIUS) 600 drones were employed during Edge 21 as surrogates for the Army's planned future Air Launch Effects-Small drones, as well. The ALTIUS 600s were launched from an ultra-light vehicle on the ground, as The War Zone has previously reported, as well as in-flight from a C-12 manned aircraft with a launch system installed inside a "wing locker." In the U.S. military, C-12 nomenclature refers to variants of the Beechcraft King Air series. Various companies offer these lockers as general storage systems that go over the wings behind the engine nacelles on those planes. Edge 21 was reportedly the first time that the locker launch method has ever been used to deploy an ALTIUS 600 in mid-air.

propellerpartsmarket.com

Commercially available wing lockers, typically used for general storage, installed behind the engine nacelles on a Beechcraft King Air aircraft.

Still, as part of its larger Future Vertical Lift initiative, the Army is already developing an entire family of large and small ALEs that will be capable of performing a wide array of missions, including conducting ISR, launching electronic warfare attacks, acting as decoys, and more, and doing so as a fully-networked swarm. You can read more about the ALE program and its objectives here.

Armed ALEs capable of functioning as loitering munitions is also something the service is looking at, but it's unclear how or if the Joint Man-in-the-Loop Loitering Munition may be directly related to that effort. In March, Northrop Grumman had announced a partnership with Israel's UVision to develop a version of the latter company's Hero 400-series loitering munition to meet an Army requirement for a "lethal" ALE.

US Army

A graphic showing how the Army expects to employ various Air Launch Effects (ALE) unmanned systems in the future.

Within the larger Edge 21 exercise, the strikes by the loitering munitions, as well as other platforms, including Marine Corps F-35Bs, were used to help clear the way for a mock airmobile assault on enemy forces.

It is important to point out that much of the new technology the Army demonstrated at Edge 21 is still largely experimental and is not necessarily intended for operational use, at least in its current form. "Sometimes they are just not going to work," Futures Command head General Murray told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“Everything that you are seeing here is what we would probably refer to as an ‘alpha’ model,” Army Chief of Staff General James McConville also stressed to Defense News. “It’s the initial model, and we know that this is not going to be the final model.”

At the same time, the loitering munitions and ALEs, as well as other technologies showcased at Edge 21, such as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) augmented reality goggles that individuals soldiers are set to start wearing in the coming years, underscore areas of growing interest to the Army, as well as the U.S. military, as a whole. The "joint" in Joint Man-in-the-Loop Loitering Munition makes it clear that this particular weapon is already being developed in cooperation with another service. 

The Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command are both also looking to add loitering munitions to their arsenals, including man-portable types and ones that can be launched from aircraft, ground vehicles, and boats. Suicide drones are already an increasingly significant feature on modern battlefields, in general, notably being a major factor in Azerbaijan's defeat of Armenia in a relatively brief conflict last year. Since then, sales of various types of loitering munitions on the international market have only increased.

As the Army continues to push ahead with Project Convergence, and associated exercises, such as Edge 21, we will hopefully begin to learn more about emerging capabilities, such as the Joint Man-in-the-Loop Loitering Munition, that are set to transform how the service fights in the future.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com