Sunday, April 25, 2010

Armed UAS's are getting smaller and smaller

We've grown accustomed to larger unmanned aerial systems (UAS's) like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper (shown below) carrying weapons (such as the Hellfire missiles illustrated beneath the wings of the aircraft below) and firing them at enemies.

These large aircraft can lift hundreds, even thousands of pounds, and are analogous to World War II close-support aircraft like the P-47 Thunderbolt or F-4U Corsair in terms of their size and payload. However, smaller UAS's such as the RQ-7 Shadow (shown below), deployed at battalion or even company level in the field, have a much more limited payload. Even the latest model RQ-7B can carry only up to 100 pounds.

It seems the US armed forces now want weapons for these small UAS's as well. The Department of the Army has just issued to industry a request for information about potential armament for the Shadow system. The request:

... seeks information from industry on weapons systems ready for production and suitable for integration on the RQ-7B with POP 300D laser designator payload Shadow Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs). Potential weapons systems must be ready to field within 12 months from the date of a potential contract award. The primary interest is in weapon systems approximately 25 lbs or less total system weight (to include munition, launcher, wiring, fire control interface, etc). The weapons system should be able to engage stationary and moving targets such as light vehicles and dismounted combatants in day and night conditions with low collateral damage when launched from a Shadow UAS flying at speeds of 60-70 knots and between 5,000 and 12,000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL). Terminal accuracy must be on the order of that demonstrated by currently fielded Semi Active Laser / Imaging Infrared / Millimeter Wave (SAL/IIR/MMW) weapons.

There's more at the link.

This is a tall order, of course. The Hellfire missile is out of the question - it weighs just over 100 pounds, so only one missile could be carried, and it requires a more sophisticated guidance system than the commercial product specified in the request for information. Ideally, the Shadow would need to carry at least two weapons, so that if one failed to hit the target, a second-shot capability would be available.

Here's where a new idea comes in. General Dynamics recently announced the successful testing of an air-dropped guided 81mm. mortar bomb. Somebody was wonderfully inventive to think of this. Mortar bombs are common as dirt and almost as cheap; the military supply system stocks them by the hundreds of thousands, I should think. The bombs for the standard US M252 81mm. mortar weigh between 7.15lb. and 12.46lb. General Dynamics' clip-on Roll Controlled Fixed Canard (RCFC) is an integrated fuze and guidance-and-flight control kit that uses GPS/INS navigation, replacing current fuze hardware in existing mortars. It adds only 1.7lb. to the weight of a standard-fuzed bomb. A test round fitted with RCFC is shown below.

In terms of their weight, in theory at least, the MQ-7B could carry up to eight of them, although two to four is more likely, given their bulk. (Heavier 120mm. mortar bombs have also been turned into 'smart weapons', albeit still tube-fired rather than air-dropped. I'd assume that the larger mortar bombs could also be converted to the air-drop role, if necessary.)

If such weapons can be further developed, the operational flexibility of the MQ-7B Shadow will be greatly enhanced. It's so small and quiet that most enemies won't know it's circling just a few thousand feet overhead; and an 81mm. high-explosive mortar round is more than sufficient to deal with a pickup truck, or a small building, or a defensive machine-gun position. If troops on the ground can call in their own high-precision strikes in this way, it'll ease the burden on the USAF to provide such services, and shorten the response time needed to provide them.

Someone's been thinking outside the box . . . to good effect, it seems to me. I wish we'd had these things available during my service 'up at the sharp end'!



reflectoscope said...

Provided the guidance kit works, it seems like a sound concept.

Also, the Reaper in your first photo has a GBU-12 on the inner right station, besides the Hellfires.


bruce said...

100 lbs is a considerable load for the rc shown.

If the plane had a long enough hang time, a team could have their own watchdog in the air (with back up) while they were out on a mission.
One solider with a helmet mounted monitor could provide insight to what is over the ridge...etc.

Integrate self flying capabilities and "hover" over the team so none of the team is burdened with control unless info is needed.
Range and duration would restrict load considerable I would think.

reflectoscope said...

I wonder what its deployable support package would be. I think the air vehicle, fuel, ammo and all the rest could be transported by two HMMWVs with trailers, or a single medium truck. A few hundred feet of decent road, and off you go.


Geodkyt said...


(Former 11B3X)