In the early history of unmanned aviation, the distinction between a drone and guided missile was not always well defined. The World War One-era Kettering Bug, regarded to be one of the first drones, was designed to deliver an explosive charge by crashing into its targets, more like a rocket than the reconnaissance and strike aircraft that we associate with the word “drone” today. But now an emerging field of unmanned aircraft, called loitering munitions, once again blurs the line between drone and missile.
A loitering munition is a type of unmanned aerial vehicle designed to engage beyond line-of-sight ground targets with an explosive warhead. Loitering munitions are often portable and many are meant to provide ground units such as infantry with a guided precision munition. They are equipped with high resolution electro-optical and infrared cameras that enable the targeter to locate, surveil, and guide the vehicle to the target. A defining characteristic of loitering munitions is the ability to “loiter” in the air for an extended period of time before striking, giving the targeter time to decide when and what to strike.
Early loitering munitions like the Israel Aerospace Industries Harpy, which was unveiled in the early 1990s, were intended to be used against radar installations or mobile missile launchers. Today, many loitering munitions are marketed for infantry use because they offer ground forces greater precision than, for example, a mortar. Unlike other types of drones of equivalent size and weight, a loitering munition is not meant to be recovered after the mission is over. Once armed and airborne, loitering munitions—which are also known as “suicide drones”—are meant to detonate on impact.
A growing number of countries are acquiring their own loitering munitions, which offer a unique set of new capabilities compared to traditional alternatives such as rockets and mortars. This document provides an overview of loitering munitions currently in use or development, and examines some unanswered questions relating to the potential benefits and dangers of the proliferation of this technology.
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