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Weapons for the Killer Drone: Zapping baddies from the comfort of home was until recently considered by Washington to be the sole prerogative of the United States. Then the Israelis did their own thing, the Brits claimed a special relationship, the Italians protested, and the Turks made an offer difficult to refuse. You don't need to be Hercule Poirot to deduce where this is going. Everybody wants killer-drones!

The Vietnam era saw use of the ship-based, torpedo-armed Gyrodyne QH-50 helicopter, and armament trials with the Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical BQM-34 Firebee, but by 1980 drones were back to being sensor platforms. Armed drones resurfaced only in late 2001, with US Air Force use in Afghanistan of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, armed with Lockheed Martin AGM-114C Hellfire supersonic anti-armour missiles.

Interest in arming Predator arose from experience in Kosovo in 1999, when targets detected by unarmed RQ- Is frequently disappeared before supporting ground attack aircraft arrived. In February 2001 trials began at Nellis AFB, Nevada with a modified Predator, fitted with a laser designator, strengthened wings, and two pylon-mounted Hellfires.

Only five days after the "9/11" terrorist attacks, weapons-capable RQ-Is arrived in Afghanistan (which had been surveyed in 2010 by RQ-1s from a base in Uzbekistan). The first armed sortie was flown on October 1st, 2001.

The MQ-1 (the multi-role designation introduced in 2002) proved effective in close support. For example, in March 2002 a Hellfire launched from an M Q-1 destroyed a mountain-top Taliban machine gun emplacement that was pinning down a US Army Rangers team, a target that had defied both F-15s and F-16s.

The Predator was subsequently used in CIA-managed "extrajudicial executions" in other countries. The first took place in the Yemen in November 2002, when an MQ-1L destroyed a vehicle carrying al-Qaeda principal al-Harethi, fingered for the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Aden harbour. Drone attacks in the Yemen have continued to the present day.

In May 2003 MQ-1B strikes began on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in north-west Pakistan, and grew to a peak of 122 in 2010. Predators may also have been involved in counter-terrorist actions in the Philippines in 2006. The MQ-1B took part in operations over Libya in April 2011, and two months later attacked an al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia. Another drone strike took place in Somalia in February 2012.

The 1040-kg MQ-1B is capable of carrying two Hellfires, or four Raytheon AIM-92 Stinger air-air missiles, or (reportedly) six Raytheon AGM-176B Griffin lightweight air-ground missiles. It has so far been exported only to Morocco (four aircraft) and Turkey (six), but it is also cleared for sale to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The United Arab Emirates have recently ordered the unarmed Predator-XP. Italyhas purchased six unarmed Predators, which it refers to as the Predator-A+ or (confusingly) MQ-1C.

The US Army's 1633-kg General Atomics MQ-1C Grey Eagle (named after a Cherokee chief, who evidently used early American-English spelling) has two extra pylons. These allow the carriage of four HeMires, or eight Stingers or four MBDA GBU-44 Viper Strike laser-homing glide munitions. Pre-series (Warrior) aircraft were first deployed to Iraq in June 2010.

The MQ-1C is replacing the 885-kg Northrop Grumman MQ-5A/B Hunter, which was the US Army's first armed drone. Viper Strike tests in 2003 and 2007 (the latter presumably for the GBU-44/B version with GPS added) cleared the carriage of two such munitions, which are ejected forwards from Systima Technologies weapons carriage containers.

Armed Hunters may have seen little operational use, perhaps because they represent only a stop-gap measure. It is known only that in September 2007 in Iraq an MQ-5A released a Viper Strike that destroyed a vehicle carrying two insurgents who had just buried a bomb.

The 4760-kg MQ-9 Reaper (which General Atomics still refers to as Predator-B) is a much more capable turboprop aircraft, with six underwing pylons. It can carry 16 Hellfires, but more typically carries four in combination with two 230 kg GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bombs or (in future) GBU-38 Jdams. Other weapons planned include Stinger. The US Air Force MQ-9 was introduced in Iraq in mid-2007, and in Afghanistan (joined by British Reapers) later that year. The MQ-9 has been exported to Britain (ten), Italy (six) and most recently France (18).

The 170-kg AAI RQ-7 Shadow 200 is used by the US Army and Marine Corps, and the armies of Australia, Italy, Pakistan, Turkey and Sweden. In 2010 the US Army invited proposals for munitions suitable for the RQ-7 (presumably weapons light enough for multiple carriage), but passed the programme to the Marine Corps, who looked for a missile already cleared for airborne use. The decision is (strangely) classified, but may have gone to the 29-kg Textron Defense Systems BW-108/B, which dispenses four 3.4-kg Skeet submunitions, and was successfully tested from a 147-kg DRS Sentry HP in 2004.


In the 1960s the US Air Force and Navy flew strike and reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, and were losing aircraft to Soviet-origin AAA and SA-2 missiles. One means adopted to cut aircrew losses was to fly the most dangerous reconnaissance sorties with a camera-equipped version of the Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical (now Northrop Grumman) BQM-34 Firebee target drone. This was launched from a DC-130 over the Gulf of Tonkin, to be recovered by parachute (when possible, to be hooked in flight by an HH-3 lolly Green Giant' helicopter).

The camera-equipped Ryan Model 147A, code-named Fire Fly, later Lightning Bug, had first been used from Kadena AB, Okinawa on August 20, 1964 in a US Air Force reconnaissance sortie over China. As conflict erupted in south-east Asia, the unit was relocated to Bien Hoa AB in South Vietnam. It flew the first photo-reconnaissance and "Sam-sniffer" missions (to record the radio signals used by SA-2 guidance and fuzing) over the North on October 11, 1964.

Although Lightning Bug losses were high, they were judged useful (570 were flown in 1972 alone), and inspired the idea that Firebees should also be used in the Sead (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) role.

The resulting US Air Force Have Lemon programme was launched in 1971 with the BQM-34A, equipped with a forward-looking TV camera, a data link and two pylons for E0-guided weapons: the 210-kg Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick missile or the 900-kg Rockwell GBU-8 Hobos (HOming BOmh System) glide weapon.

This led to the BGM-34B with an imaging-IR sensor in the nose for day/night capability, and a laser designator for LGBs. It was tested in 1974 with the Mk81 Self-Propelled Air-to-Surface Munition (Spasm), a 113-kg (class) laser-guided bomb with a tandem-mounted rocket motor with large tail fins.

The final Have Lemon variant was the dual-role BQM-34C, which could perform both reconnaissance and strike missions. However, the armed Firebee trials squadron was disbanded in 1979, some say because fighter pilots feared for their jobs. On the other hand, pre-GPS navigation was inaccurate, hence drones were undependable as strike assets, and they lacked the operational flexibility of manned aircraft,

In 2003 Northrop Grumman exhibited a Firebee with two Hellfires and a pod for dispensing battlefield sensors, but there were evidently no takers.


In developing guided munitions for drones, minimising weight maximises potential platform numbers, but implies a small warhead, in turn demanding precise delivery. Four decades of experience have proved that miss distances of less than five metres can be achieved by having the munition home on to a spot of laser illumination. Adding mid-course satellite navigation facilitates trajectory shaping, limits the time that target illumination is needed, and provides semi-precise delivery in the event that terminal homing is lost.

The simplest form of powered laser-homing missile is the laser-guided rocket (LGR), which is now appearing in multiple forms, mostly produced by adding guidance and control kits to off-the-shelf rocket projectiles.

The leading example is the BAE Systems APKWS, based on the widely-used General Dynamics Hydra 70. The APKWS is in full-rate production under US Navy funding for Marine Corps use on manned helicopters. It has a launch weight of 14.8 kg, is 1.942 metres long, and has an effective range of 1, 100-5,00O metres.

In September 2012 BAE Systems was awarded a US Navy contract to integrate the APKWS on the 1430-kg Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, evidently using two three-round launchers. Use of APKWS on the production 2722-kg MQ-8C should follow from around 2016.

Another LGR based on the Hydra 70 is the Lockheed Martin Dagr (Direct Attack Guided Rocket), believed to be in limited production under US funding for Iraq's Mi-17s, Mi-171s and ATK AC-208Bs. The Raytheon Talon LGR is under joint development with the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Advanced Investment Group.

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) is working with Elbit Systems on development of the Gatr (Guided Advanced Tactical Rocket), which retains the MK66 motor of the Hydra 70, but has a new warhead and tail, and an Elbit seeker. The Roketsan Cirit LGR has been developed from scratch, primarily for Turkish Army helicopters, but has also been tested on the TAI Mosquito drone helicopter.


To date, most drone-delivered weapons have been 50-kg (class) Hellfires and 230-kg GBU-12s. Costing around $80,000, Hellfire is broadly four times as expensive as the $19,000 GBU-12, but its supersonic flight gives less time for the target to move behind cover. The Hellfire also has a smaller warhead, producing less collateral effects, but it is an expensive way to attack personnel and unarmoured vehicles.

The AGM-114P Hellfire was developed for medium-altitude drones, notably the MQ-1 and MQ-9. Such operations involve soaking at low temperatures (-35 deg C), and require seeker gimbal modification for increased look angle (sources claiming 90 degrees off-boresight). The current version appears to be the AGM-114P-4A.

The AGM-114P is now being replaced in US service (as are all laser-homing Hellfire II models) by the AGM-114R, with a multipurpose warhead to suit a variety of targets. It also has a new IMU (inertial measurement unit), allowing targets to be engaged to the side and behind the launch platform. An improved seeker gives better performance in the presence of obscurants such as smoke. The AGM-1114R also provides trajectory shaping to optimise lethality against different targets, and automatic target reacquisition after loss of track in low cloud.

The AGM-114R has a launch weight of 49.4 kg with a 9.0 kg tandem warhead. It is 163 cm long and has a body diameter of 178 mm. Using a high trajectory and lock-on after launch (Loal), it can achieve its maximum range of 8000 metres.


The MBDA Dual Mode Brimstone (DMB) is structurally a Hellfire derivative, but has a new motor, warhead and seeker system. It uses semi-active laser (SAL) homing until the terminal phase, when it can switch to active mm-wave radar guidance to deal with fast, manoeuvring targets. It has a launch weight of 50 kg, an overall length of 180 cm, and a body diameter of 180 mm. The DMB may be deared for use with a three-round launcher on British MQ-9s, providing true all-weather capability.


Another laser-homer in the Hellfire category is the 49.8-kg Denel Dynamics Mokopa, which offers a range of 10,000 metres and has been exhibited as potential armament for the same company's Seeker 400 male drone. China's equivalent of Hellfire is the CASCT AR-1, which has appeared on models of the CH-3 drone.


The much lighter GBU-44/B Viper Strike is an air-launched derivative of Northrop Grumman's Bat anti-armour submunition. The Bat employs a combination of acoustic and infrared homing, and was designed to be dispensed from the Atacms surface-to-surface missile.

The tube-launched Viper Strike glide bomb employs laser terminal homing and entered US Army service on the MQ-5 in 2007. In 2011 Northrop Grumman sold the programme to MBDA, who renamed it Viper. It is in service on US Army, Marine Corps and Socom aircraft, and clearance is planned for use on the MQ-I 13, MQ-1C and MQ-8.

MBDA now produces the GBU-44/E Viper-E, apparently developed to deal with targets that require steep or shallow attacks. Its "fast attack mode" is effective against highspeed land/sea targets, and its "top attack mode" allows the engagement of targets directly below the launch aircraft.

The Viper has tandem warheads. It weighs 19 kg, and has a length of 89 cm, a wingspan of 91.5 cm, and a body diameter of 140 mm. It employs GPS/INS mid-course guidance, with SAL homing. Its long-span cruciform wings produce a glide ratio that allows release from altitude at a safe standoff distance The Viper-E II is a development with only GPS/INS guidance, but a data link for target updates.


Compared to the Viper, the Raytheon AGM-176 Griffin is a more conventional-looking missile. The unpowered AGM-176A Griffin-A is ejected aft from a ten-round pack on the rear ramp of the US Marine Corps Harvest Hawk KC-130J. The rocket-powered AGM-176B Griffin -B is fired from manned and unmanned aircraft. An extended-range version is being developed for the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (to compete with the MBDA Sea Spear derivative of Brimstone).

The Griffin-B weighs 15 kg with a 5.9 kg warhead, is 109 cm long, and has a body diameter of 140 mm. It uses GPS/INS navigation, with laser terminal homing. The fuze allows selection of height of burst, impact or delayed detonation. Griffin production has been running at around 600 rounds/year.


In the same size category, the Israel Aerospace nd ries (TAT) Lahat weighs 13 kg and has a range of 13 km. It has been exhibited on a four-round launcher next to the company's Heron TP drone. The 13-kg Thales LMM (Lightweight Multi-role Missile) is currently in production in laser beam-riding form for the Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter. It is 130 cm long, and has a diameter of 76 mm and a range of 8,000 metres.


The US Army's interest in very light weapons for the RQ-7 led to the emergence of several unpowered munitions weighing six kilograms or less. Except for the mortar bombs, all employ GPS/INS navigation with laser terminal homing.

One example is the 5.9-kg MBDA Saber (Small Air Bomb, Extended Range)., which uses the company's Diamond Back wing-kit. A powered derivative weighing 13.6 kg is planned. An alternative EO/IR seeker and data link are under development.

Raytheon offers the Small Tactical Missile (STM), originally 60 cm long. This was further refined as the 6.0-kg STM Phase II or Pyros, with a length of only 55.8 cm, due to a shorter warhead from Nammo-Talley. The safety and arming device by Kaman Aerospace allows for air burst, or detonation on impact or with delay. Pyros has small foldout wings and fins. Two rounds can be accommodated in tandem in the Systima

Technologies Common Launch Tube. The first guided test from a Raytheon Cobra drone was performed in August 2012.

The Lockheed Martin Shadow Hawk has fixed control surfaces, weighs 5.0 kg, is 69 cm long and has a 70 mm body diameter (suggesting some commonality with the company's Dagr rocket). The Shadow Hawk was successfully tested from a Shadow 200 at the US Army's Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, in April 2012.


Consideration has also been given to airdropped guided mortar rounds, although such weapons have a smaller guidance footprint than winged missiles. This may force the drone to make a more precise 'canned' attack, flying directly toward the target, with munition release at a precomputed point, according to height-difference.

Several guided mortar bombs have already been developed. In 2011 the Alliant Techsystems' Mortar Guidance Kit (MGK) for the 120 mm mortar entered service in Afghanistan. It employs GPS (which the US Army considers more suitable than laser homing in mountainous terrain) to give a CEP of less than ten metres. However, a 120 mm mortar bomb weighs around 15 kg, which is too heavy for multiple use on the RQ-7.

An 81 mm mortar bora weighs only 4.1 kg, and General Dynamics has developed in partnership with BAE Systems the GPS-guided Roll-Controlled Guided Mortar (RCGM) for ground use. Derived from this, GD's Air Dropped Mortar (ADM) has been tested under the US Army Research Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) Precision Air-Dropped Guided Munition (PADGM) programme. It was first released from a C-123 and later from an L-3 TigerShark drone.


One lightweight munition that the US Army appears to have ignored is the Spike developed by the Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC) at China Lake, California, in collaboration with DRS Technologies. The Spike was designed to use either electrooptical contrast-lock or laser horning. It was primarily intended as a tube-launched low-cost ($5,000) ground-ground missile for the Marine Corps, although drone use was also envisaged. It weighs around 2.3 kg, and has a range of over 3.0 km from ground launch.

Another laser horning weapon in the two-kilo category is the ATK Hatchet, a 60 mm munition that is 32 cm long. Evidently designed for launch from three-round tubes on the ScanEagle, it has four wrap-around wings and four tail surfaces that fold aft. It is also envisaged that Hatchet could be dispensed from a rotary launcher, allowing an MQ-9 to carry over 100.

Lightweight laser-homing missiles are produced most economically by adding guidance and control kits to Hydra 70s. The APKWS is also to be used on the US Navy's MQ-8 Fire Scout. (BAE Systems)

This MQ-9 Reaper is armed with four dual-mode Raytheon GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II bombs, combining GPS guidance with loser homing to ensure all-weather operation and precision delivery (US Air Force)

This historic photograph from the 1970s shows the Teledyne Ryan BQM-3411/8 strike drone, with the dual-role BQM-34C strike/reconnaissance version at the rear. On the left is an E0-guided Hobos, and on the right the Spasm rocket-powered LGB. (Northrop Grumman)

in the mid-1970s, Ryan Aerospace (now Northrop Grumman) had already brought about the concept of a modular drone able to perform different missions, and one of the weapons retained clearly was the Maverick missile. Five prototypes were built and tested, but the programme was later terminated. (Armada archives)

Originally developed by Denel as an anti-armour missile for use from the Rooivalk attack helicopter, the 10km range Mokopa was presented as a possible armament for the Denel Seeker 400 seen here. (Denel)

The turboprop-powered Generol Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, illustrated here by serial 0.3-41066', Taught a major improvement in warload It typically carried two GB Li 12 Povewav 11 LGBs inboard and four Hellfire missiles outboard. (General Atomics)

The Northrop Grumman MQ-5A/B Hunter was the US Army's first armed drone. Two GBU-44 Viper Strike glide munitions could he ejected forwards from containers developed by Systima Technologies. (Northrup Grumman/MBDA)

The diminutive Raytheon AGM-176B Griffin-B is shown here (transversely mounted) between a seven-rocket Talon LGR launcher and a Jagm four-round rack. The Griffin-B is 109 cm long and has a diameter of 140 mm. (Raytheon)

The IAI Lahat was presented as possible armament for the Eitan, and acoording to certain source the tandem may have already been used in anger. (Armada/Eric H. Biass)

The MBDA Saber offers an unusually large guidance footprint, due to the company's Diamond Back wing-kit. The Saber is marketed in two forms: a 5.9 kg glide weapon. undo 13.6 kg rocket-powered missile. (MBDA)

The length of the Raytheon STM phase II or Pyros was reduced to 55 cm. thanks to a short warhead developed by Nammo-Talley. The missile is shown mounted on the centreline pylon of a Raytheon Cobra drone. (Raytheon)

The light weight (6.0 kg) of the Raytheon Pyros eliminates the need for special loading equipment, other than a stand to raise the drone (a Raytheon Cobra) off the ground. (Raytheon)

The 5.0-kg Lockheed Martin Shadow Hawk was successfully tested from a US Army MI RQ-7 Shadow 200 at the Dugway Proving Ground in April 2002. (Lockheed Martin)

The small size of the Raytheon Small Tactical Munition (STM) is apparent in this exhibit, showing it with the Tow missile and the 120GM Dagger laser-homing 120 mm mortar round. This STM Phase I was 60 cm long. (Raytheon)

The 81 mm Air-Dropped Mortar (ADM) developed by General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems is shown being released from a TigerShark drone during US Army Precision Air-Dropped Guided Munition trials. (GD-OTS)

One of the least publicised mini-munitions is the 2.3-kg Spike developed by the Naval Air Warfare Center as a joint venture with DRS Technologies. Spike is shown here being flight tested on the 9.1-kg Lew Aerospace lnventus-E drone. Developed as a cheap substitute for Javelin, the NAWC Spike was designed to engage a battlefield target moving at up to 50 km/hr, using either laser homing or E0 contrast-lock. (Lew Aerospace)

Roy Braybrook, inputs from Eric H. Biass
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Title Annotation:Drone Armament
Author:Biass, Eric H.
Publication:Armada International
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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