Making better smaller weapons

LA Times:

A 5-pound missile the size of a loaf of French bread is being quietly tested in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles as the military searches for more deadly and far more precise robotic weapons for modern warfare.

In the next month or so, researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake expect to test a 2-foot-long Spike missile that is about a "quarter of the size of the next smallest on the planet," said Steve Felix, the missile project's manager.

Initially intended for use by ground troops against tanks, these small guided missiles have been reconfigured to launch from unmanned airplanes to destroy small vehicles. In the test, the missile will be fired from a remote-controlled helicopter and aimed at a moving pickup truck.

If the test is successful, it will mark another milestone in the development of weapons for unmanned aircraft, a nascent field reminiscent of the early days of flight nearly a century ago when propeller-driven biplanes were jury-rigged with machine guns.

In recent months, the U.S. has used Predator robotic planes equipped with video cameras to carry out search-and-destroy missions against Al Qaeda hide-outs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These attacks highlighted the rapidly changing face of warfare. But it was no big deal at China Lake, where weapons have been getting smaller, more precise and more powerful for a decade.

The new missiles being developed here are minuscule compared with the older, 100-pound Hellfire missiles in use today in Central Asia. A Predator, which can carry two or three Hellfires, would be able to hold as many as a dozen Spikes, extending its capabilities.

At the same time, experts say, smaller unmanned planes that could not carry weapons before could become deadly attack aircraft.


Engineers at the sprawling China Lake complex, one of the nation's largest weapons test facilities with 6,600 workers, are hoping to be at the forefront.

"We're sort of at the same stage as we were in 1914 when we began to arm airplanes," said Steven Zaloga, a military analyst with the Teal Group Corp.

Pentagon officials say robotic planes have been particularly effective. As a result, demand for them has climbed sharply and Pentagon planners have rethought how they develop and deploy new weapon systems, analysts said.

That's because the threat to U.S. security isn't from superpower rivals with state-of-the-art fighter jets and nuclear submarines, but from international terrorists who are more likely to engage in smaller-scale, guerrilla-type warfare, they said.

In such warfare, robotic planes, originally intended to provide video images of potential threats, are becoming one of the more effective weapon delivery systems, they said.

The aircraft can circle over an area for extended periods -- up to 24 hours in some cases -- looking for elusive targets. Once a target is identified, remote operators can launch a missile to destroy it within minutes.


The Spike, which uses commercially available computer chips and components, is expected to cost about $5,000 a pop, compared with more than $100,000 for the current generation of guided missiles.

"You can put them on smaller UAVs and thus have more of them," Pike said.

He noted that the fast-paced advances in computers and electronics have helped weapons developers. "That's why there have been such amazing outbursts of creativity in munitions."
War is a creative process that stimulates advances that were not anticipated before it breaks out. When you break down the combinations of warfare they basically fall into four groups--heavy and light infantry and heavy and light cavalry. Stalemates can occur when the machinery of warfare makes it impossible to effectively use all four. That is what happened between the Civil War and World War I. Towards the end of World War I tanks became an effective heavy cavalry alternative and planes became an effective light cavalry alternative. This is why warfare in World War II was dramatically different.

When we have enemies who cannot deal with our superiority in combined arms, they use a raiding style of warfare in an insurgency. To defeat an insurgency you need a higher force to space ratio than in combat persisting oeprations. What these light UAVs bring to the battle is a combination of persistence, invulnerability, and accurate lethality. By making smaller weapons to fit on the UAVs we increase their persistence and there ability to carry more weapons.

The article is right in seeing this as like the early stages of planes as a weapon. I have made the observation several times before. I think they will get smaller, lighter and more accurate.


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