Loitering ammunition in Special Operations Forces

Warmate - produced by WB Group  - is proven in military conflict, and it's capabilities are beeing improved / photo: Grupa WB
Warmate - produced by WB Group - is proven in military conflict, and it's capabilities are beeing improved / photo: Grupa WB

Loitering munition is a category of weapon systems, the main elements of which are an unmanned platform with a warhead. Such ammunition circulates around the target area, searches for targets and attacks, is also able to attacks targets indicated by external sources (e.g. other unmanned platforms, special operations forces soldiers). This type of ammunition is also called suicide drones or kamikaze drones.

Characteristics and history

The advantages of loitering ammunition include the possibility of quick reaction after detecting a target, especially those that stay in the field of fire for a limited time (e.g. a moving command vehicle or anti-aircraft missile launcher) without the need to expose valuable manned platforms, such as attack helicopters, to the enemy’s means of destruction.

Loitering ammunition fills the niche between cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The difference between maneuvering missiles is that it can “keep watch” in the given area, looking for or waiting for the indication of the target[1]. It differs from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in that it is designed to perform a suicide attack and has a built-in warhead.

Various designs are indicated as the archetype of loitering ammunition. The Delilah missile developed by Israel Military Industries, which was introduced into service in various versions from the beginning of the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is mentioned. The Delilah missile is classified as both a cruise missile and loitering ammunition. Unlike a typical cruise missile, which is programmed onto a fixed coordinate target prior to launch, a Delilah missile’s unique feature is that it can circulate and observe a certain area to identify a specific target before attacking[2].

The unsuccessful anti-radar missile program conducted in the United States in the years 1982-1991, AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow is also mentioned as the progenitor of the loitering ammunition. It was assumed that the AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow would be a low-cost weapon that would support the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD)[3].

Polish company MSP made its own loitering munition GIEZ / Photo MSP

It is most often assumed that the first mature representative of loitering ammunition is Harpy, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) since the late 1980s. Harpy is designed to attack radar systems and is optimized to SEAD missions. Harpy was quite successful in export, it was sold, among others to South Korea, Turkey, India and China[4].

The primary role of circulating munitions was SEAD. After a painful confrontation with Soviet anti-aircraft systems during the so-called exhaustion war and Yom Kippur[5] war Israel sought a solution to the threat posed by anti-aircraft missile systems. The evolution of technology and doctrine used by Soviet anti-aviators and the export of knowledge and weapons to Egypt and Syria meant that the use of anti-radar missiles such as the AGM-45 Shrike and other previously used means to attack fixed anti-aircraft installations posed too great a threat to “Wild Weasels”, and their highly trained and experienced pilots. A new air defense breakthrough doctrine was implemented in 1982 during Operation Mole Cricket 19 against Syrian air defense in the Bekaa Valley. The Israelis used various UAVs, including target drones, to fight back air defence. UAVs were used for provoking and reconnaissance of anti-aircraft defence, which were then destroyed by anti-radar missiles.

Programs such as Harpy or AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow developed in the 1980s combined sensors detecting radar means with an unmanned aerial vehicle or rocket platform with command and control functions and patrolling (circulation) capabilities. This was to enable the placement of relatively cheap ammunition in the places of potential deployment of anti-aircraft defense means and for an immediate attack as soon as an element of the anti-aircraft system becomes visible. In this way, the use of an UAV as a decoy with the possibility of kinetic interaction through on one small integrated platform was relatively cheap, in compare to a “Wild Weasel” – SEAD airplane.


Loitering ammunition in the special operations forces

The use of loitering ammunition has expanded beyond the role of a SEAD missions. Loitering ammunition began to be used for strikes against various targets and fire support, up to tactical use as a means of direct support carried “in the backpack” by light infantry and special operations forces (SOF) units. The advantages and the variety of applications of modern loitering ammunition are well reflected by the statement given by Brig. Arieh Mizrachi: If we want to attack a command bunker, for example, and we know where it is situated and exactly which window we need to hit then we can do it. We can always make another approach and place the missile exactly where we want it. The extreme precision of the missile makes it possible for us to paralyze the enemy by striking their critical point. For example, if we send the missile through a window of a division's control center, then no one will be left to give orders, and we'll have silenced the whole division. It's important to understand that the target does not need to be a large command center. The 'Delilah' lets us strike at the brain of the enemy, even if it's a small mobile target like a command armored personnel carrier. Similarly, we can strike at a ship's command center without needing to sink the whole ship. This holds true for many other kinds of target like airports, logistics centers and so on[6]. After the Cold War, when loitering ammunition was seen as a means of SEAD, as a result of the so-called War on Terror, began to be recognized that loitering ammunition has a much wider spectrum of use. It was recognized that light loitering ammunition can be useful in the implementation of a wide variety of missions. For example, as a means of detecting and destroying the positions of sharpshooters. On the other hand, it can also complement the equipment of sharpshooters, allowing to increase the ability to detect targets and hit them without exposing own position[7].

Effect of striking a target with loitering munition / Photo: MSP

Over the last 20 years small UAVs have revolutionized the way frontline forces can acquire situational awareness, without relying on assets that are controlled by other groups within their warfighting organization. This organic capability empowers them and enables them to understand better what’s going on across the front line and to make better decisions as a result of that awareness. In a similar manner, loitering missile systems give soldiers a rapid response/precision lethality capability that enables them to take action when they’ve identified threats in a way that gives them positive control over the engagement. Loitering ammunition is not a fire-and-forget type of missile that may or may not end up hitting the target; with the live streaming video and other data coming back from our systems, the operator can positively identify that threat and neutralize it. And in the event there is a change in the battlefield and the target they thought was a threat turns out not to be, the operator can wave off and then recommit systems at a later time or against another target. This unique set of capabilities allows the soldiers to avoid the type of unfortunate collateral damages, too.

In 2004, the U.S. Army asked the Arlington, Virginia-based AeroVironment company about the possibility of developing a small UAV that could be fired from a 105mm howitzer and be used to battle damage assessment without endangering soldiers. UAV was to be equipped with a camera and a link to provide live image transmission for the howitzer crew. The program, called gun-launched, unmanned air vehicle (GLUAV), was unsuccessful, but paved the way for another program under the auspices of the Institutional Research and Assessment Division. This time, the UAV was to be fired from a portable container, not from a howitzer. At the same time, AeroVironment, together with Raytheon Missile Company, won the DARPA program, the aim of which was to create the Close Combat Lethal Reconnaissance (CCLR) demonstrator. The CCLR contained many of the solutions developed for the GLUAV program, but the information was not transmitted by radio, but by wire, similar to the TOW anti-tank guided missile produced by Raytheon. After these experiences, AeroVironment proposed to the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) the concept of a small armed UAV fired from the tube launcher. As part of the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program, AeroVironment in 2006 received a contract for the development of an armed UAV - Switchblade Block 0. Switchblade successfully passed field tests that it was decided to develop the Switchblade Block 1 version, which could be in the inventory of AFSOC units.

Loitering munition is dynamically entering the sea domain. Warmate already underwent tests on ship / Photo: WB Group

The next stage in the development of loitering ammunition in the U.S. Army started in 2010. U.S. Army based on user operational assessment concluded that the Switchblade could fill a loophole in the capabilities of existing technologies and weaponry. Switchblade Block 10 (Switchblade 300) was introduced by the US Army in 2012. In 2017, the Switchblade 300 was also selected in the Department of Defense Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System (LMAMS) program for forces conducting counter-insurgency operations abroad. Again, in 2020, AeroVironment won a multi-year contract, it was U.S. Army program Tactical Aviation and Ground Munitions (TAGM) for the deliveries of Switchblade 300 in response to a Joint Urgent Operational Need Statement[8].

Today, Vironment’s family of loitering missile systems includes the pioneering, combat proven Switchblade 300. Weighing just 5.5 lbs., Switchblade 300 is the lightest, most compact and backpackable loitering missile system available, and can be deployed in less than two minutes via the launch tube in which it is transported. Operated manually or autonomously, Switchblade 300 provides real-time video and cursor-on-target GPS coordinates for information gathering, targeting or feature/object recognition. With up to 15-minutes of endurance and dash speed of 100 mph, Switchblade 300 provides the warfighter with quick response and precise munition delivery for use against beyond line-of-sight stationary or mobile threats, with low collateral damage and the ability to wave-off and recommit[9].

In 2018 U.S. Navy announced that Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE) Program started. The Navy 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 from a flotilla under the Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM). MPE was going to acquire a family of standoff, loitering, man-in-the-loop weapon systems deployed on combatant craft, capable of targeting individuals, groups, vehicles, high-value targets, and small oceangoing craft with low collateral damage[10].

As a result of the implementation of MPE, in April 2021, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) signed a contract worth 26.1 million with AeroVironment. USD for the supply of loitering ammunition Switchblade 600. This type of weapon premiered in October 2020[11]. As the newest member of AeroVironment’s family of loitering missile systems, Switchblade 600 represents the next generation of extended-range loitering missiles. Larger than its backpackable predecessor, Switchblade  600 can conduct longer missions at greater distance, and deliver more significant precision effects on target. This all-in-one, man portable (50 lb.) solution includes everything needed to launch, fly, track and engage non line-of-sight targets with lethal effects, and can be set-up and operational in less than ten minutes. Its self-contained, tube-based launch system allows for the flexibility to be launched from ground, air or mobile vehicle platforms. With a 115 mph dash speed, and on-board multi-purpose anti-armor warhead, Switchblade 600 has the firepower to engage and prosecute hardened static and moving light armored vehicles from multiple angles with precise localized effects, while minimizing collateral damage.

Flying loitering munitions should be as little difficult for soldiers as possible / Photo: WB Group

Equipped with a high-performance EO/IR gimbaled sensor suite, precision flight control and more than 40 minutes of flight time, Switchblade 600 delivers unprecedented tactical reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA). This allows Switchblade 600 to transit up to 80 km to a target area before conducting multiple confirmatory orbits, and engage in target prosecution – without the need for external ISR or fires assets. Should non-combatants be observed on target, Switchblade 600 patented “waveoff ” feature and recommit capability allows operators to abort the mission at any time, and then re-engage either the same target or other targets based on operator command. Also new with Switchblade 600, AeroVironment is introducing an intuitive touch-screen, tablet-based Fire Control System (FCS) with tap-to-target guidance and the option to pilot the vehicle manually or autonomously. Combined with its built-in mission planner and training simulator, the FCS provides operators with an intuitive platform to easily plan and execute missions precisely, while reducing cognitive load. On-board AES 256 digital encryption and SAASM GPS provide the security, resilient communications and signal integrity against anti-spoofing attacks needed to operate in today’s complex battlefronts[12].

A U.S. Special Operations Command spokesperson, explained: The munitions purchased under this procurement are not intended for operational use. This is a research and development effort. We are evaluating the technical feasibility of developing, integrating and testing munitions capable of launching from static or moving platforms to engage static or moving surface targets. This is part of our investment in precision munition capabilities needed for U.S. Special Operations Forces to operate in future challenging environments across multiple domains. This includes the maritime domain.  This capability may be integrated across multiple platforms currently in service with U.S. Special Operations Command.

We are continuously searching for improvements and researching technological developments across the air, ground and maritime domains – particularly for systems and platforms that support operations in remote locations. The ability for U.S. Special Operations Forces to employ loitering munitions is key to our ability to precisely strike enemy forces[13].

The U.S. Marine Corps also wants to introduce loitering ammunition to support the Marines operating without the help of aviation, in conditions of ballistic missiles threat and radio-electronic warfare. Loitering ammunition for the Marines is to be able to operate in a swarm, be able to automatically recognize targets and be easy to use, so as not to burden the fighting soldiers. In November 2020, the Organic Precision Fires - Infantry Light program was launched, under which the Marine Corps was looking for drones operated by no more than two soldiers, fired from a portable container, with a range of 20 km, capable of circulating for 90 minutes. The swarm is to be immune to disturbances. In addition, the Organic Precision Fires-Mounted (OPF-M) program is to be launched, which is to lead to the acquisition of loitering ammunition, the launchers of which are to be mounted on armored vehicles (LAV-M and JLTV), and UAVs to operate in a swarm at a distance of 7 up to 100 km. In June 2021, the Israeli company UVision and its American partner Mistral Inc. received a contract for the delivery of the Hero-120 system under the OPF-M program[14].

OPF-M is developed in cooperation with USSOCOM. The SOF Warrior Executive Officer, Col. Joel Babbitt, said: loitering munitions were fast becoming a “game changer for tactical forces”, providing a precision strike capability operating underneath enemy air defence systems and without air force support[15].


This kind of means of destruction is also of interest to British amphibious forces. Future Commando Force, i.e. commandos of the British Royal Marines, after reorganization and modernization, are to be equipped with loitering ammunition capable of operating in a swarm and ensuring not only shock but also reconnaissance capabilities. Loitering ammunition is to significantly increase the capabilities of commandos in counter operations and support the Littoral Strike concept[16].

In 2016 U.S. Navy in cooperation USSOCOM, and U.S. Air Force, introduced the AeroVironment Blackwing drones to the arsenal of Navy attack, guided missile submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles as part of the Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS against Mobile targets (AWESUM) program. Blackwing can communicate with submarines’ communications and provide target information for ships and aviation over Link 16 data links. Blackwing can also be armed to provide additional protection for submarines operating closer to shore, it can also cooperate with SOF units. Blackwing can be launched from the submerged submarine[17].

The development of loitering ammunition is in line with the directions of technological development of the United States Special Operations Forces for the period 2020-2030 announced in 2018. Especially, the development of the so-called small branches in relation to the two areas, Lethality and Cohesive Information Gathering. The new weapons and equipment introduced in the units under USSOCOM are to be light-weight, not to burden soldiers, autonomy, create a system that allows for autonomous operation, maintain the ability to operate inside the enemy’s A2/AD zones and in conditions of electronic interference, without access to GPS[18].

Not only is AeroVironment is a producer of loitering ammunition, which is or may enter the arsenals of the SOF. Traditionally, the Israeli industry can present a rich offer. An example is the light, low-cost Green Dragon loitering ammunition developed by IAI for SOF and small units, based on the technology of the larger and more well-known Harop loitering ammunition. Green Dragon has a range of 50 km and can be fired from a 14 to 16 UAVs’ launcher mounted on the vehicle. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. is also a producer of Spike FireFly/Maoz loitering ammunition. FireFly was designed to operate in urban areas. It weighs 3 kg, is portable, can be operated by one soldier. A tablet is used as the human-machine interface. Other Israeli manufacturers of loitering munitions include: UVision, manufacturer Hero-20, Hero-30, Hero-70, Hero-120, Hero-250, Hero-400, Hero-400EC, Hero-900, and Hero-1250. Hero-30, one of the smaller ones in the UVision offer, weighs 7.5 kg with the launch container, flight duration 30 minutes. Aeronautics Defense Systems with the UAV Orbiter family, including orbiter 1K MUAS loitering ammunition, should be also mentioned. Aeronautics products are presented by the manufacturer as particularly useful in counter-terrorist missions conducted by SOF.

The South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration runs a program of acquiring loitering ammunition in 2021 based on a lightweight multirotor platform that can be assembled and operated by a single soldier. Offers in this program were presented by Darts, UMAC Air and LIG Nex1. Both Israeli and South Korean products combine the ability to conduct reconnaissance (they are equipped with TV and infrared cameras) with the ability to destroy detected targets[19].

Russian specnaz also use loitering ammunition. Syria is a testing ground for the Russians. In 2019, the first, unconfirmed information about the use of Kub loitering ammunition produced by ZALA AERO from the Kalashnikov Holding appeared. In 2020, an experimental batch of more advanced ZALA Lancet loiternig ammunition was delivered for combat trials. Apparently, several dozen precise attacks were made with the help of drones. The tests are not only related to testing this particular suicide drone, but also to working out tactics and rules for its general use. Admittedly, even if Kub kamikaze drones had been used in Syria several times before, loitering ammunition is essentially a new combat weapon in the Russian Armed Forces, so the idea of using it is still crystallizing. Theoretically, the possibilities of Lancet loitering ammunition are wide, preliminary tests for the use of Lancets from sea platforms and for fighting enemy drones are considered promising. Loitering ammunition Lancet type was lunched from the high-speed boats used by specnaz. The first attempts to take off the Lancets with the use of pneumatic catapults from moving cutters gave satisfactory results. A lancet fired from the sea struck ground targets - shields imitating humans.

The concept of using the ZALA Lancet loitering ammunition to build an “air minefield” is also very interesting. The tested concept assumes that a given area is protected by a team/swarm of loitering munitions, which attacks enemy drones when they come within the range of its sensors. Upon detecting an enemy drone, ZALA Lancet heads at it and destroys it in a suicide attack, detonating the warhead at the same time.

The Lancet-3 version was used in Syria. According to the manufacturer’s specification, the ZALA Lancet-3 has a take-off weight of 12 kg and a warhead weighing 3 kg, a march speed of 80-110 km/h and a flight duration of 40 minutes, with a target range of 40 km from the ground control station. The drone has folded wings in a cross arrangement, it takes off from a light pneumatic launcher, unlike the previous type of ZALA KUB, it has a TV channel installed, which allows for real-time image transmission[20].

Polish Special Forces also have Warmate loitering ammunition in their arsenal. Its producer is a Polish company, Grupa WB. The WARMATE  can be used as a self-contained system, which can be transported or carried by land or special forces units. The system design permits its installation on vehicles (cars, APCs) and integration of the Ground Control Station and the Ground Data Terminal with onboard vehicle systems. The Warmate  constitutes a good alternative for anti-tank guided missiles with its capability to operate in a significantly larger radius, allowing comfortable detection and observation of the potential target in a relatively large time span (the flight time is ca. 70 minutes). Optionally the system can be equipped with a laser-seeking warhead. The Warmate  in combat configuration is an expendable solution. In the observation configuration the UAV can be recovered and reused. The Warmate  is a fully autonomous solution allowing real-time operation of airborne warfare, using the video feed received from its surveillance subsystem. The UAV is equipped with control modules ensuring full automation of the majority of flight phases and supporting the operator during targeting. The operator has full control and bears full responsibility for switching to the “armed” to execute a combat task.

The Warmate system had its world premiere during the DSEi fair in London in 2015. The system designed in the WB Group by Polish engineers, based on Polish technology, Warmate sets have already been implemented for service in several countries. The users of the Warmate system are mentioned Polish SOF, and SOF of another NATO country, where it proved its effectiveness in the conditions of the modern battlefield. Warmate is also introduced by the SOF of non-NATO countries[21].

Loitering ammunition in Poland is not only Warmate itself. Currently, it is an element of the reconnaissance and strike system enabling small units to conduct reconnaissance while making precise strikes at high-value enemy targets. SWARM is a system that enables the incorporation of a reconnaissance and strike unit (RSU) into either the army or SOF. The RSU comprises Reconnaissance & Command Vehicles (RCV) equipped with the FlyEye mini observation UAV and strike vehicles (SV) equipped with the Warmates. All these elements can operate in a swarm. The SWARM system integrates the two unmanned aerial systems, allowing highly accurate observation and target selection using data from FlyEye, and a rapid strike response using Warmate. Data and voice communication between the different vehicles within the RSU are facilitated by the FONET – voice, and data communication system, which is incorporated with either a third-party radio or the Comp@n software defined vehicular radio. The type of vehicles (wheeled, tracked, towed) used for the RCV and SV are chosen by the end-user, and the full integration of FONET, FlyEye, Warmate and a radio network is provided by WB Group. Further, WB Group offers a comprehensive maintenance program that administers the repair of both the vehicle infrastructure and UAVs, in addition to on the ground IT support. A complete training program is provided for the whole SWARM system.

The WB Group’s offer also includes a larger model of the Warmate 2 loitering ammunition (its flight duration is 120 minutes), reconnaissance Warmate R and Warmate TL starting from the container. These suicide and reconnaissance drones can cooperate as a swarm and with larger UAV (reconnaissance and radio-electronic combat) FlyEye and FT5. This system was implemented in Ukraine, where the Sokol (Falcon) system was created, consisting of six Warmate carriers, each carrying 10 drones (which gives a total of 60 machines ready for use) and one reconnaissance vehicle with UAV FlyEye. Each such vehicle also has an internal installation integrated with the control and command station and ground data terminal[22].

Also, another Polish company MSP, developed reconnaissance and suicide drone Giez (Gadfly). It is a combat platform with folding wings, that is fired from a tube launcher. The target is guided using the video image analysis system from the camera installed on board. The system can be armed with several types of warheads. It is currently being tested by potential clients[23].

Meanwhile, Military Aviation Works No. 2 S.A. from PGZ group are constantly developing the DragonFly loitering ammunition system[24].

How useful can loitering ammunition be for conducting special operations? Two examples are a good illustration to answer this question.

The first example - in the UK, unknown perpetrators using two drones led to the closure of Gatwick airport in London in December 2018. Drones flying over the airport resulted in the cancellation or rerouting of 760 flights, and around 120,000 passengers were suffered. It is true that no loitering ammunition was used in this case, but it is conceivable to use it for this type of operation.

The second example - the Abqaiq refinery and the Khurais oil field, owned by the Saudi state-owned Aramco oil company, were attacked on September 14, 2019 using suicide drones and cruise missiles. The attack was carried out by General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al-Quds Force, a special unit within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which for several years has been waging Iran’s “secret wars” in places such as Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip[25].


Some reflections on loitering ammunition and a summary

Undoubtedly, loitering ammunition provides many advantages in the tactical, operational and strategic dimensions. Suicide drones, while maintaining the precision of destruction, do not expose the soldier highlighting the target to the. It can operate in an environment with nuclear, biological and chemical threats. It creates the possibility of performing dangerous tasks, where there is a high risk for the aircraft and its crew, such as SEAD. The advantage of loitering ammunition is the ability to patrol, even for extended periods, and then immediately strike stationary or moving targets. This translates, inter alia, for resolving "ambiguous situations", eg distinguishing between a bus carrying soldiers and a bus carrying civilians (such a distinction would not be able to make a combat aircraft pilot without information from the ground). Thus, the use of loitering ammunition increases the precision of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, compared to, for example, fire and forget weapons. The ability to circulate allows for more precise detection and tracking of potential targets. In addition, the precision of guidance and a relatively small warhead also cause less undesirable damage, compared to e.g. 155 mm artillery ammunition or the 500 lb Mark 82 aerial bomb.

However, in order for these abilities to translate into a clear and lasting combat advantage on the battlefield at a higher than tactical level, the armed forces must first be able to locate and track relevant targets, evaluate the results of strikes, and then perform a maneuver to use tactical, operational and strategic advantages. This, of course, requires investments in reconnaissance and battlefield management systems at the three above-mentioned levels of operations of the armed forces. Integrating loitering ammunition with C4 systems is a demanding and necessary task, if not performed, the use of loitering ammunition narrows much. An example of the difficulty in connecting loitering ammunition to the C4 system is the fate of the British Fire Shadow program. The Fire Shadow was to enter service with the Royal Artillery and become part of an evolutionary strategy to develop affordable yet advanced weapons. In mid-2018, the UK Ministry of Defense canceled the Fire Shadow Circular Weapons Project at a loss of £ 95 million. The main contractor of the program was MBDA[26]. However, Poland has competences and practical experience in this area which have been successfully completed.

The implementation of loitering ammunition requires not only changes in the technological layer, but also in the doctrine, mentality, organization, work culture or proficiency in handling information. Despite these challenges, loitering ammunition is already a permanent element in the arsenal of many countries. These include Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Germany, Poland, Russia, the United States, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and certainly others. Loitering ammunition is used by Houthi rebels in Yemen, terrorists from the so-called Islamic State, military forces of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Loitering ammunition proved its effectiveness as a means of breaking the enemy’s air defense, as proved by the Israeli experience in the early 1980s, as well as the armed Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in autumn 2020, in which loitering ammunition operating in one system with UAV with reconnaissance and ammunition delivery capabilities, it effectively eliminated the enemy’s air defense. One can risk the claim that the use of loitering ammunition allowed to create an on-demand A2/AD zone. Of course, this aspect must be viewed in a broader context: planning, reconnaissance and command capabilities.

Loitering ammunition can act as a deterrent, not as effectively as nuclear weapons, of course. However, especially swarms of drones - platforms with kinetic means of destruction - that is, in fact, loitering ammunition can act as a deterrent, and to some extent they can even be treated as weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, loitering ammunition also has its limitations. As with all flying devices, especially small and maneuvering devices are susceptible to weather conditions. Dependency on data transmission for non-autonomous operating mode. Circulating ammunition also has a range deficit. The information provided on the ranges of loitering ammunition ranges from several kilometers that can support the operation of the team to several hundred kilometers in the case of drones that can counter the enemy’s air defense in an autonomous mode. This, of course, means that in terms of range and speed of reaching the target, the loitering ammunition cannot yet compete with cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, although the vision of using suicide drone in the enemy’s hinterland is promising. A way to overcome this limitation is to carry loitering ammunition by other longer range unmanned platforms, airplanes and helicopters.

Loitering ammunition is also a relatively cheap and very cost effective means of destruction. A single Warmate suicide drone costs about PLN 100,000. The prices of anti-tank guided missiles FGM-148F Javelin and Spike-LR1 ATGM with the command and lunch unit oscillate around PLN 700,000 - 900,000. The cost of the 155 mm M982 Excalibur guided artillery shell is $ 68,000. The unit price of the AGM-88E AARGM missile is $ 994,000. The cost of AeroVironment Switchblade is estimated around $ 70,000 apiece, or about two-thirds of the cost of the AGM-114 Hellfire guided missile[27]. I am not claiming that the loitering ammunition should replace ATGMs, 155mm artillery ammunition or aviation anti-radiation missiles. By quoting prices, I just want to show that the loitering ammunition is not only valuable in terms of operation, but also in terms of price, supplementing the existing arsenal. It is also worth mentioning that in the war in Yemen since 2015, the Houthi rebels use Iranian Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K suicide drones, the unit price of which is estimated at several thousand USD. The main means of combating it are the AIM-9 Sidewinder air missiles (unit price around USD 450,000) and AIM-120 AMRAAM (unit price around USD 1,000,000) [28]. The costs of fighting loitering munitions are therefore disproportionately high in relation to the value of their purchase.

The above reasoning does not lead to the conclusion that the loitering ammunition will replace the missiles or attack helicopters. USOCOM develops not only loitering ammunition, but also other means of destruction, as part of programs such as, for example, Powered Standoff Precision Guided Munition. Measures to combat suicide UAVs and drone swarms are also being developed. Certainly, however, the loitering ammunition increases the possibilities of reaction of the armed forces and enriches various scenarios for the use of the military option. The beneficiaries of the possibilities offered by the circulating ammunition are, among others SOF in the United States, Great Britain, Turkey, India, Polish Special Forces.

In Poland, there is a potential for the development of circulating ammunition, command systems, and reconnaissance systems - this gives the Polish Armed Forces a chance to have a modern and effective weapon system, understood as a set of interrelated elements implementing as a whole the assumed and complex goals at the tactical, operational and strategic level.

Author: Hubet Królikowski


Scheme of the armored carrier drum UAV. Figure
2013 PEO Subs Slide on AWESUM Program. NAVSEA Image
An overview of the MPE program that Special Operations Command's Program Executive Office-Maritime present at the 2018 SOFIC gathering.


[1] New generation of cruise missiles, and missiles such as Tomahawk block IV, AGM-158C LRASM, Naval Strike Missile/Joint Strike Missile (NSM / JSM), Dual-Mode Brimstone have the ability to circulate, have certain sensory functions and the ability to control. Dual-Mode Brimstone and NSM/JSM are directed to a specific area where they are looking for a predefined target, in this respect the British and Norwegian missiles are similar to loitering ammunition. However, unlike loitering ammunition, which is designed to be patrolled with varying speed - cruise missiles are optimized to fly long distances at a constant cruising speed, both in terms of propulsion and airframe.

[2] Delilah was initially created as an airborne dummy and later developed into an offensive strike weapon in the 1990s. It is an air - surface and surface - surface weapon, it can be carried by airplanes and helicopters (e.g. F-16 and UH-60 ). Delilah can be used to combat moving and stationary targets both on the ground and in water. Delilah Series of Air-Launched Advanced Stand-off Missiles. High-performance, long-range, precision air-to-surface loitering missiles, Elbit Systems Land, (accessed: 2021-04-25); Missile Threat Delilah, Center for Strategic and International Studies, (accessed: 2021-04-25); Delilah’s Secrets, IAF Magazine Articles, (accessed: 2021-04-25).

[3] The developed weapon was to combine elements of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, would be fired in large numbers by heavy bombers, fighters or ground launchers. The missiles were to fly up to 450 km in front of the manned aircraft to the programmed target zones and patrol there until sources of radiation were detected, which were then also to be destroyed by loitering AGM-136. The possibility of patrolling the area of potential targets – “time of loitering” was to be a key feature of the new PARM (persistent anti-radiation missile) system and an advantage over anti-radar missiles such as AGM-88 HARM. J. W. Canan, On the Horizon: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, “Air Force Magazine”, 1988, t.71, nr 10, s. 84-92, (accessed: 2021-04-25); (accessed: 2021-04-25).

[4] The IAI Harpy was a weapon so effective that its sale to China was the target of serious efforts by the US administration to limit the transfer of weapons and the sale of advanced military technology. China purchased an undisclosed number of Harpy drones in 1994. And in 2003, it signed an agreement with IAI to upgrade the Harpy. Washington’s objection to the deal came despite the fact that the IAI Harpy does not contain any US-made subsystems. U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel. Updated November 16, 2020, Congressional Research Service, s. 30, (accessed: 2021-05-01); S. Efron, H. J. Shatz, A. Chan, E. Haskel, L. J. Morris, A. Scobell, The Evolving Israel-China Relationship, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2019, s. 4, 18-19, 51, 142.

[5] K. Kubiak, Ł. M. Nadolski, Ogień na pustyni. Konflikt izraelsko-arabski w latach 1967-1973, Wydawnictwo Inforteditions, Zabrze – Tarnowskie Góry, 2017, s. 8-93; Ł. Przybyło, Doktryny wojenne. Historia i ocena, Wydawnictwo Tetragon, Warsaw, 2018, s. 193-219.

[6] N. Ofir i O. Yaakov, Delilah's Secrets, “IAF Magazine Articles”, (accessed: 2021-05-01).

[7] D. J. Snyder, Design Requirements for Weaponizing Man-Portable UAS in Support of Counter-Sniper Operations, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, 2011.

[8] A. Moncourtois i B. Hush, Switchblade: From Gun-Launched UAV to Precision Strike Loitering Missile System, AeroVironment, 2020-11-24, (accessed: 2021-07-08); AeroVironment - Rapidly Deployable UAV Situational Awareness for International Defence Forces with combined lethality, Defence & Security Systems International, 2020-11-24, (accessed: 2021-07-09); When Precision Counts, AeroVironment’s Famili of Loitering Missile Systems Switchblade 300 / Switchblade 600 / Blackwing, AeroVironment, (accessed: 2021-07-09).

[9] When Precision Counts…; Switchblade 300, Shephard Media, 2021-04-22, (accessed: 2021-07-09).

[10] J. Trevithick, U.S. Special Operators Eye Adding Suicide Drones To Their Stealthy Speedboats, The War Zone, 2018-06-27, (accessed: 2021-07-13).

[11] T. Eshel, SOCOM Places a First Order for Switchblade 600 Loitering Missiles, 2021-04-27, Defense-Update, (accessed: 2021-05-02); J. Sabak, Drony kamikaze dla Navy Seals?, Defence24, 2021-04-29; (accessed: 2021-05-02).

[12] When Precision Counts….

[13] P. Ong, USSOCOM Tests New Switchblade 600 For All Platforms, Including Maritime, Naval News, 2021-05-14, (accessed: 2021-07-11).

[14] S. Snow, The Corps wants 15 suicide drones swarming from the hands of one front-line Marine, Marine Corps Times, 2018-07-20, (accessed: 2021-05-02); D. B. Larter, The US Marine Corps wants grunts packing deadly swarming drones, DefenseNews, 2020-12-09, (accessed: 2021-05-02); T. South, New in 2021: Marines and loitering munitions ― from LAVs to infantry squads, the Corps wants more in the new year, Marine Corps Times, 2021-01-08, (accessed: 2021-05-02); J. Palowski, Marines: Transportery z amunicją krążącą przeciwko czołgom, Defence24, 2021-06-21, (accessed: 2021-07-10).

[15] A. White, Loitering munitions: Growing demand, Shephard Media, 2020-08-06, (accessed: 2021-05-02).

[16] T. Fish, RN develops forward positioning forces, Shephard Media, 2021-03-21, (accessed: 2021-05-09); J. Starkey, Brit of a coup. Strike squad of just 100 Brit Marines smashed 1,500 US troops in war games drill, The Sun, 2021-03-24, (accessed: 2021-05-09).

[17] S. LaGrone, AeroVironment to Supply Blackwing Mini UAVs for Navy Attack, Guided Missile Submarines, 2016-05-16, USNI News, (accessed: 2021-05-03).

[18] Science and Technology - Preparing for the Future 2020-2030, Special Operations Forces Small Unit Dominance (SOF SUD), United States Special Operations Command, Tampa 2018, (accessed: 2021-07-10); A. White, SOF operations: Urban chic?, Shephard Media, 2018-06-28, (accessed: 2021-07-10).

[19] F. Camargos Pereira, Precision-guided munitions: Hitting the spot, Shephard Media, 2020-12-28, (accessed: 2021-07-10); Green Dragon Mini Loitering Munition System, IAI, (accessed: 2021-07-10); Green Dragon loitering munition, Shephard Media, 2018-01-29, (accessed: 2021-07-10); A. White, Close-quarter combat: In the line of fire, Shephard Media, 2019-11-12, (accessed: 2021-07-10); Israel orders Rafael Spike FireFly for IDF ground forces, Shephard Media, 2018-01-29, 2020-05-04, (accessed: 2021-07-10); G. Arthur, Loitering Munitions, Lessons from the Caucasus, “Air Warfare”, 2021 nr 3, (accessed: 2021-07-10); Aeronautics Group,  (accessed: 2021-07-19); G. Arthur, South Korean army prioritises unmanned systems,  Shephard Media, 2020-12-04, (accessed: 2021-07-10).

[20] M. Gawęda, Kub i Lancet. Rosyjska amunicja krążąca w Syrii, Defence24, 2021-05-02, (accessed: 2021-05-02); J. Sabak, Rosjanie z amunicją krążącą Kałasznikowa. „Sprawdzona” w Syrii, Defence24, 2020-12-07, (accessed: 2021-05-02).

[21] Pierwsze zestawy Amunicji Krążącej WARMATE w służbie polskiej armii, Grupa WB, 2017-11-20, (accessed: 2021-07-13); Warmate to be Received by SOF Component of a NATO Member State, Defence24, 2017-05-21, (accessed: 2021-07-13).

[22] M. Dąbrowski, Warmate - ewolucja amunicji krążącej, Defence24, 2018-05-30, (accessed: 2021-07-13). More information about the Polish loitering ammunition system mentioned on the WB Group website

[23] Produkty militarne, MSP InnTech sp. z o.o., (accessed: 2021-07-13).

[24] Ł Pacholski, Co dalej z systemem Orlik? Odpowiedź MON, ZBiAM, 2021-07-24, (dostęp: 2021-07-25).

[25] Drony nad Gatwick: policja aresztowała podejrzanych, Rzeczpospolita, 2018-12-22, (accessed: 2021-05-05); G. Psujek, Tajemnica ataku na saudyjską rafinerię, Radar Rzeczpospolita, 2019-09-22, (accessed: 2021-05-05).

[26] UK Scraps Fire Shadow Loitering Munitions Program Incurring Loss of $148 Million, DEFENSEWORLD.NET, 2018-07-25, (accessed: 2021-05-01).

[27] R. Lesiecki, Wojsko Polskie kupuje 1000 Warmate’ów, Dziennik Zbrojny, 2017-11-20, (accessed: 2021-05-05); T. Dmitruk, Produkcja ppk Spike w Polsce – czas na zmiany, Dziennik Zbrojny, 2020-06-09,,5,23,11338,wojska-ladowe,wyposazenie,produkcja-ppk-spike-w-polsce-czas-na-zmiany (accessed: 2021-05-05); S. J. Freedberg Jr, Excalibur Goes To Sea: Raytheon Smart Artillery Shoots Back, Breaking Defense, 2016-01-12, (accessed: 2021-05-05); AGM-88 HARM, (accessed: 2021-05-05).

[28] The killer-drone parts available online for less than $600, Wired, 2020-10-07, (accessed: 2021-05-05); J. Stoneman, Selected Acquisition Report, AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder, As of FY 2020 President's Budget, Defense Acquisition Management Information Retrieval, Department of Defense, Washington DC 2018; J. Sobel, Selected Acquisition Report, AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), As of FY 2020 President's Budget, Defense Acquisition Management Information Retrieval, Department of Defense, Washington DC 2018.