The operator-in-the-loop nature of most loitering munitions, a technology that Israeli companies pioneered and continue to lead in the further development of, allows the user the make very fine course corrections in flight, further improving the weapon’s accuracy. It also provides an added margin of safety, since the operator can direct the munition away from the target area, if necessary, even very late in the terminal stage of a strike, should circumstances change, such as the sudden appearance of innocent bystanders. The onboard navigation systems on the Hero series of loitering munitions mean they can be used to strike fixed targets at specific coordinates, beyond-line-of-sight, as well.
The Marine Corps sees loitering munitions, among other new weapon systems, as essential to enabling new distributed and expeditionary concepts of operations that the service is still in the process of refining. These concepts, broadly referred to as Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO), are at the core of how the Marines expect to fight in the future, including in high-end conflicts against near-peer opponents, such as Russia or China. This is also driving a dramatic force-wide restructuring that you can read more about here.
A weapon like the Hero-120 certainly offers a new way for even relatively small Marine ground units to conduct precision strikes at extended ranges, while also expanding their overall situational awareness. It gives those same units this kind of capability in the absence of more traditional air or artillery strikes, as well. This could be extremely valuable in distributed operations across a broad front, such as an area of the Pacific region, where other types of indirect fire support may not be readily available.
The Marines are also planning on mounting MCLs loaded with Hero-120 OPFs on small unmanned boats, which would be capable of launching swarming attacks on enemy ships, as well as land-based threats near to the shore. The service has implied that its versions of the Hero-120 may have the ability to operate in networked swarms themselves. In a maritime context, while loitering munitions, such as the Hero-120, would not be large enough to sink enemy warships or even smaller boats, such as landing craft, they could be used to cause a mission kill by damaging key systems, such as radars or communications antennas. This, in turn, could effectively put those vessels out of commission for an extended period while repairs are made. Targeting the bridge on patrol boats, landing craft, or similarly sized vessels might be enough to take them out of the immediate fight, as well.
“These swarming aerial munitions, which employ automatic target recognition, have proven exceptionally lethal in recent global conflicts, most recently in Europe,” General David Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, told members of Congress in June. “Our own tests have also demonstrated this technology to be effective, with five of five successful shots during testing. We plan to equip our infantry and reconnaissance Marines with this loitering capability, mounting those munitions on both ground vehicles and long-range unmanned surface vessels.”
Berger was almost certainly referring to Azerbaijan’s heavy use of Israeli-made loitering munitions during its conflict with Armenia last year, which catapulted this category of weapons into the mainstream discourse like never before. That, in turn, has only prompted additional interest in these weapons and the capabilities they offer within the U.S. military, as a whole.
Previous reports have indicated that there is already another Hero-120 variant, the Hero-120SF, specifically designed for U.S. special operations forces. In March, Northrop Grumman announced it was working with UVision on an air-launched hybrid Hero-120/Hero-400 design to meet U.S. Army requirements.
UVision is planning to conduct a demonstration of at least some portion of its product line at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah sometime this month, with representatives from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) also attendance. The new MCL could certainly be of interest to the Army and Navy, as well as SOCOM, for ground-based and maritime applications. The Air Force might be interested in variants of Hero for air-launched use, too, having already demonstrated something of a similar capability in a test involving the launch of an ALTIUS 600 small drone from the internal bay of a larger XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aircraft.
As already noted, UVision’s Hero series is already making significant inroads across the U.S. military and is part of a future that is getting ever closer where American forces will be increasingly armed with various tiers of loitering munitions.
Contact the author: [email protected]