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Future of Battlefield Lethality

A look at the latest trends reshaping Land Warfare Munitions

Issue 2 - 2024 By Rohit GoelPhoto(s): By UVision
HERO-120 Portable Anti-Tank Loitering Munition System

The landscape of land warfare is undergoing a metamorphosis driven by relentless technological innovation. This transformation extends beyond the established dominance of precision-guided munitions (PGMs). We are witnessing a paradigm shift, with entirely new weapon systems and functionalities emerging that promise to redefine the nature of combat. Here we delve into the cutting edge of land warfare munitions, exploring the trends that are reshaping the battlefield of tomorrow.

Loitering Munitions: The Rise of the “Kamikaze Drone”

Imagine small, expendable flying bombs hovering in the air, silently stalking their targets before delivering a devastating blow. This is the reality of loitering munitions, often nicknamed “kamikaze drones,” and they are rapidly changing the way wars are fought. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) combine the destructive power of a missile with the extended loiter time of a reconnaissance drone. They can be launched from various platforms, including vehicles, ships, and even backpacks, offering troops unprecedented flexibility and firepower.

Two prime examples illustrate the impact of loitering munitions. The USmade Switchblade system comes in two variants: the Switchblade 300, a manportable option ideal for taking out tactical targets, and the larger Switchblade 600, designed to engage armoured vehicles. Israel’s HERO series offers a similar range of loitering munitions, with models like the HERO-30 perfectly suited for close-quarters combat due to its lightweight design, while the HERO-120 packs a heavier punch for neutralizing armoured vehicles.

We are witnessing a paradigm shift in land warfare, with entirely new weapon systems and functionalities emerging that promise to redefine the nature of combat

Additionally, advancements in electric and hybrid propulsion could lead to quieter and more efficient loitering munitions. Imagine silent, electric-powered drones capable of extended loiter times for covert surveillance or surprise attacks. Companies like Textron are already developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) tactical UAVs that could be adapted for loitering munition applications.

The advantages of loitering munitions are numerous. Their affordability allows for a “disposable” approach to warfare, minimising the cost per target engaged. Additionally, their extended loiter time enables troops to positively identify high-value targets before striking, reducing collateral damage. Loitering munitions are particularly effective in urban environments where traditional airstrikes can be risky due to civilian presence. However, concerns remain regarding their proliferation in conflicts where proper training and targeting protocols might not be strictly followed.

Precision on Steroids: Next-Generation PGMs

Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) have long been a mainstay in modern warfare, offering unparalleled accuracy and minimising collateral damage. However, the focus now is on pushing the boundaries of precision and lethality. Advanced guidance systems are being developed, incorporating sophisticated technologies like millimetre wave radar and electro-optical seekers. These systems allow missiles and artillery shells to not only lock onto a target but also adjust their trajectory in midflight for behind-cover strikes. Imagine a laser-guided missile that can manoeuvre around obstacles to take out an enemy entrenched in a fortified position.

Miniaturisation is another key trend in PGMs. Smaller, more affordable PGMs are making precision firepower more accessible. One such example is the APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System), which essentially transforms unguided rockets into precision weapons by adding a laser guidance kit. This allows close-air support missions to be carried out with greater accuracy and reduced risk of civilian casualties.

AI Integration: The Rise of the “Thinking Bullet”

The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into munitions is perhaps the most controversial and potentially transformative trend. AI algorithms can analyse data from sensors and cameras mounted on munitions, enabling them to identify and track enemy targets with superhuman precision and speed. Imagine a mortar round equipped with AI that can adjust its trajectory mid-flight based on real-time target identification from its onboard camera. While this promises unmatched accuracy and lethality, the ethical implications of autonomous weapons systems are a major point of discussion. The potential for unintended consequences and the blurring of lines between human and machine decision-making in the context of taking human lives raise serious concerns.

The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into munitions is perhaps the most controversial and potentially transformative trend

Another potential application of AI is in autonomous swarming tactics. Multiple loitering munitions equipped with AI could collaborate, sharing target data and launching coordinated attacks, overwhelming enemy defences. The concept of weaponised AI raises complex questions about accountability and the potential for arms races fuelled by autonomous weapon development. International regulations and clear guidelines will be crucial in mitigating the risks associated with AI-powered munitions.

Advanced Materials and Propulsion: Lighter, Faster, More Lethal

New materials science is leading to a revolution in munition design. 3D printing is emerging as a viable option for manufacturing complex and customised munitions. Imagine scenarios where soldiers in remote outposts, faced with unforeseen enemy defences, can download schematics for specific anti-tank rounds and print them on-demand using a portable 3D printer. This could revolutionise logistics and supply chains, allowing troops to adapt their arsenal based on real-time battlefield situations. The US military is already exploring the potential of 3D-printed munitions, with ongoing research projects focused on developing printers capable of handling the high-strength materials needed for certain weapon components.

Research into novel propellants is also underway. The focus is on cleaner burning options that reduce environmental impact and logistical burdens associated with traditional propellants. One area of exploration is the development of biofuels that could power loitering munitions, offering a more sustainable alternative to conventional fuels.

Networked Warfare: Munitions as Part of a Bigger System

The battlefield of tomorrow will be a web of interconnected systems, and munitions are being designed to seamlessly integrate with other platforms. This networked approach promises enhanced situational awareness, faster decision-making, and ultimately, a more decisive advantage.

  • Drones and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs): Loitering munitions can receive real-time target data from overhead drones or UGVs. Imagine a scenario where a loitering munition equipped with AI receives a target designation from a reconnaissance drone, allowing it to strike with pinpoint accuracy without ever exposing itself or the launching platform to enemy fire. This collaborative approach between different unmanned systems can significantly reduce risk to manned troops.
  • Artillery Systems: Imagine AIpowered artillery shells equipped with miniaturised radar seekers and onboard processing capabilities. These shells could receive target data from battlefield sensors or drones, mid-flight, allowing them to adjust their trajectory for course correction or even behind-cover strikes. This would significantly reduce the number of rounds needed to neutralise a target, minimising collateral damage and ammunition expenditure. For instance, BAE Systems’ Archer self-propelled howitzer system demonstrates the potential for integration of fire control systems and battlefield networks, paving the way for future AI-powered artillery munitions.

The Future: A Balancing Act

The trends outlined above paint a picture of a rapidly evolving landscape for land warfare munitions. New technologies promise unprecedented precision, lethality, and battlefield awareness. However, this progress comes with a responsibility to address the ethical considerations surrounding autonomous weapons and the potential for unintended consequences. International cooperation and clear regulations will be crucial in ensuring the responsible development and use of these advanced munitions. Finding the right balance between technological advancement and responsible use will be paramount in shaping the future of land warfare.

The land warfare landscape is on the cusp of a significant transformation. New and innovative munitions are blurring the lines between traditional categories, with AI, advanced materials, and network connectivity playing an increasingly important role. While these advancements promise greater efficiency and reduced casualties, the ethical considerations surrounding autonomous weapons and the potential for proliferation cannot be ignored. Moving forward, a commitment to responsible development and international cooperation will be essential in harnessing the power of these new technologies for a safer and more secure future.