A Harop in its transportable launcher. Thanks to its folding wings, the weapon can be launched from a truck- or ship-mounted canister or configured for air-launch. Confirmed customers include India and Azerbaijan.
Launch of a Harop and (inset) the terminal dive onto its target. Flying at speeds of up to 225kts, the drone also boasts a radar cross-section of less than 0.5m².
IAI’s Rotem is a vertical take-off and landing loitering munition that employs the tried-and-tested quadcopter configuration. In a series of trials in southern Israel in 2018, the company evaluated the attack drone against targets including simulated terrorist cells, explosive devices and unarmoured vehicles.
The Orbiter 1K is Aeronautics’ first loitering munition and utilises the structure of the Orbiter 2 man-portable UAV. The Orbiter 1K is launched from a catapult and can fly for up to three hours.
IAI’s Green Dragon. Early last year, photos appeared showing a Green Dragon launcher on board one of the IDF’s Hetz-class fast attack missile craft, marking the first confirmed naval application of the weapon.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have performed a series of aerial attacks in recent months, mainly on targets in Syria, to foil Iranian efforts to equip its proxy, the Hezbollah terror organisation based in Lebanon. Tehran has sought to provide the group with increasingly accurate surface-to-surface missiles and rockets that have been used in attacks on Israel.
Some reports from Syria indicate that manned fighter aircraft were not detected over the targets. Israel generally remains silent about the particular weapon systems used in these highly accurate attacks, but the IDF has a wide variety of options in its armoury. One of these is loitering weapon systems.
Until fairly recently, loitering weapons were considered a `luxury’ item for IDF fighting units, but they are now almost a baseline requirement for many of the country’s offensive operations. Such systems are currently in considerable demand and Israel’s defence industries are working hard to supply them.
Undoubtedly, Israel’s loitering weapons made a major leap forward some five years ago. Until that time, the country’s only operational system in this class was the Harop, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) on the basis of the 1980s-era Harpy. Like its predecessor, the Harop was designed specifically to destroy high-value targets, including air defence radars.
The Harop consists of a munitions unit, a transportable launcher and a mission control shelter, the last of these providing a real-time control function for the weapon using `man-in-the-loop’ guidance.
The Harop can be launched from various transportable platforms, including sea- and ground-based canisters, or it can be air-launched before navigating towards the potential target area. It can be launched at any angle, including horizontal or vertical trajectories, and the sealed container ensures protection from harsh battlefield conditions.
The Harop is armed with a 35lb (16kg) warhead and is equipped with an advanced POP-250 day/night optronic payload produced by IAI’s Tamam Division. It has an operational range of 6,230 miles (10,026km) and an endurance of six hours.
Big and heavy, the Harop was built to attack hardened targets, but the trend towards loitering weapons has also resulted in a diversified range of sizes and payloads for different applications. Last year, IAI unveiled the Mini Harpy, based on Harop technology.
In an interview with AIR International, Boaz Levi, general manager and executive vice-president of IAI Systems’ Missiles & Space Group, explained that the Mini Harpy is designed to neutralise radiation-emitting threats such as radars and other air defence systems: “The system was designed to provide operators with control up to the last moment, including cessation of attack at any stage. Electrically powered, it is extremely quiet, carries a shaped charge of approximately 17 pounds [8kg], operates over a range of 62 miles [100km] for a duration of two hours and has a total weight of 100 pounds [45kg].”
He added that the Mini Harpy is fitted with a dual sensor working in the electro-optical (EO) and electromagnetic realms.
While IAI’s main loitering weapon systems are the massive Harop and the downsized Mini Harpy, the company has also developed devices for smaller units on the move. One is the Green Dragon, a tube/ canister-launched attack drone designed for use at the battalion and brigade levels.
The Green Dragon weighs only 33lb (15kg) and carries a small EO seeker and a warhead weighing just 5.5lb (2.5kg). Despite its small size, it is considered useful against most tactical targets, loitering for 1.5 hours at distances of 24 miles (39km) from the control point. The launch tubes can be carried in a backpack or as a stack in groups of 12 to 18 on board a vehicle.
The Green Dragon uses a hardened tablet computer to control the entire mission, with a single unit capable of conducting both surveillance and attack. The operator can designate and engage the target as it appears on the tablet screen, or else halt the operation at any time before impact, using a built-in `abort and circle’ capability designed to prevent collateral damage or mistaken targeting.
Back in 2016, IAI unveiled a new lightweight loitering munition. The system is named Rotem and weighs around 10lb (4.5kg). This vertical take-o and landing (VTOL) device is powered by electric motors driving four rotors and it carries an interchangeable day/ night payload. The Rotem is armed with two hand grenade-size explosive units. The company says the system is intended for troops involved in urban warfare and that it can be controlled to “get through a window”. The Rotem has an endurance of 30-45 minutes and a soldier can carry three or four such systems and operate them using a tablet-size control unit similar to that used for the Green Dragon. A single infantryman can fly the Rotem using simple `point and click’ commands on the controller. The system is also equipped with an acoustic sensor to avoid collision with obstacles in the area of operation.
Once it became clear that there was a significant market for loitering weapons, other Israeli companies joined the e ort. Four years ago, Raytheon teamed up with UVision to win an order to supply the Israeli-developed Hero-30 loitering munition to the United States Special Operations Command under the US Army’s Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile System (LMAMS) programme, for which a contract is expected in the coming months. The programme aims to purchase 25,000 examples of a new loitering weapon over a 15-year period. If the Hero-30 is selected, Raytheon will serve as primary contractor.
The derivative of the Hero-30 developed for the US Army will be lighter and carry a smaller warhead. The current version weighs 6.5lb (2.9kg) and is armed with a 1lb (0.45kg) warhead and is carried in a canister that also serves as a pneumatic launcher. After launch, the electric motor is switched on and the drone locks on to the pre-designated target, transmitting video to the operator via a handheld unit. The Hero-30 is equipped with a day/night sensor and has a 30-minute endurance, loitering at altitudes between 980ft and 2,000ft (300 and 609m). The data link developed for the system provides control up to a maximum range of 6 or 24 miles (10 or 40km), depending on the antenna used.
UVision says it has identified an increased demand for small loitering munitions in recent years, mainly due to operational lessons from tackling international terrorist groups. A company source said: “The capability of small units to attack sources of fire independently has become crucial in combat in urban areas.”
In response to this trend, Israeli industries are working to develop more such systems. Some are already at an advanced stage, while others remain studies. However, there seems little doubt that the variety of loitering weapons will increase dramatically in the near future.
Last year, UVision unveiled its latest design, the Hero-400EC. This is larger than the Hero-30 and has a distinctive cruciform aerodynamic shape. According to the company, this ensures accuracy and reduces collateral damage. Its electric motor enables it to loiter silently above a target, ready to instantly respond to `pop-up’ threats.
The company adds that the Hero-400EC was developed to meet a growing operational requirement for a loitering weapon that can remain in the air for extended periods, provide a substantial warhead effective against a wide variety of targets and deliver missile-level pinpoint strike capabilities.
The Hero-400EC uses `man-in-the loop’ technology and advanced electro-optical/ infrared (EO/IR) payloads that can locate, track and strike static or moving targets accurately and without warning. The system features a low noise and thermal signature, plus a modular multi-tube launcher that can be adapted to a wide range of platforms, thereby offering air, land, and sea capabilities. The new drone’s abort capability also allows automatic re-entry into the loitering mode, re-engagement with the enemy or a return to the recovery area using a parachute. It has a maximum take-off weight of 88lb (40kg) and a warhead weight of 22lb (10kg), with an endurance of up to 2 hours.
UVision has also developed the Hero-120, which can be fitted with a range of powerful multi-purpose warheads. This model is intended for pinpoint strikes in populated urban areas or remote locations with minimal collateral damage. An endurance of more than an hour and a loitering range of up to 24 miles (39km) enable independent operation by frontline forces, including precision strikes against time sensitive targets. Featuring low acoustic, visual and thermal signatures and fully gimballed and stabilised day/night tracking, the Hero-120 can also provide critical situational awareness and real-time intelligence via its advanced data link. Recoverable using a parachute, the system is also cost-effective.
The Israeli unmanned systems manufacturer Aeronautics has joined the development effort with its new Orbiter 1K loitering weapon. The new system is based on the structure and design of the firm’s Orbiter 2 and marks the first time Aeronautics has developed a loitering device.
The Orbiter 1K is launched from a catapult and can fly for 2-3 hours, carrying a multi-sensor camera with day and night channels. The system is compact and easily operated from a personal ground-control system.
Aeronautics says that, given a specific waypoint, the Orbiter 1K can detect and destroy a moving or a stationary target. The system can also operate within a predetermined area, independently scanning the area before detecting and destroying the target. If the target isn’t detected or if plans change, the system’s recovery capability allows it to return to its base camp and land safely using a parachute and airbag.
According to Dany Eshchar, deputy CEO at Aeronautics, the first armed Orbiter 1Ks will be supplied to undisclosed foreign customers in coming months, only confirming the company has received orders for “hundreds” of systems.
Military commanders in Israel and elsewhere clearly want more loitering weapons – and fast.