Air Weapons: Following The Market At A Distance


July 23, 2019: A Russian firm (Zara) put a new loitering munition on sale in June. The Lantset is a small, propeller-driven UAV that sends back a video signal to the operator and carries an explosive warhead that can be used when the UAV is flown into a target. Lantset comes in two sizes. Lantset1 weighs, 5 kg (11 pounds), can stay airborne for 30 minutes and carries a 1 kg (2.2 pound) warhead. Lantset 3 weighs 12 kg (26 pounds), can stay airborne for 40 minutes and carries a 3 kg (6.6 pound) warhead. Zara hopes to sell Lantset to the Russian military because the export market is already crowded with similar, combat-proven, loitering munitions. Because of sanctions, Russia cannot buy the foreign systems, which is just as well because the foreign competition is formidable.

Israel and the United States have been developing and using these systems for over a decade. For example in 2009 the U.S. Army sent the newly developed Switchblade UAV system to Afghanistan for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Initially, Switchblade was mainly used largely by Special Forces and other special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblade UAVs for troop use and since then has ordered over a thousand more.

Switchblade is a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery-powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same gear, video-game-like controller, the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV employs. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds). Once launched out of its shipping container Switchblade can move at about 100 kilometers an hour and stay in the air for 15 minutes. 

The hand-held controller displays the video and allows the operator to place the cursor over any point and get the GPS coordinates of that point. This can be used to call in air, artillery or missile strikes. Switchblade carries a small warhead with the same explosive effect of a 40mm grenade. There were plans for a Switchblade 2 with a longer (30 minute) endurance but the demand wasn’t there. The troops were satisfied with Switchblade as it was.

Israel has produced several loitering munitions and uses those as well as exporting them. For example, in February 2018 India ordered another 54 Harop (Harpy 2) UAVs from Israel. India already has 110 of these and is obviously pleased with their performance. India purchased 110 of them for about $910,000 each back in 2009, soon after Harop was introduced for SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) and other dangerous work.

Harop had its first combat use during 2017 in the Caucasus. Developed in 2005 from the earlier (1990s) Harpy UCAV, the Harop improves on the original design by achieving better performance because it is a little longer with added outer wing extensions and a canard. Harop is 2.5 meters (8 feet, 2 inches) long, has a 3 meter (9 feet, 10 inches) wingspan and weighs 135 kg (298 pounds). Top speed is 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour. Harop is a small hybrid design UAV that can either be used for reconnaissance multiple times or once as a cruise missile. Harop is a conventional small aircraft with a cranked delta wing with the propeller in the rear. Harop is actually a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) controlled by a remote operator and capable of flying more than 1,000 kilometers or loitering for up to 6 hours while carrying a 23 kilogram (51 pound) high explosive warhead. It can be launched from an aircraft or from a sealed storage/launch container mounted on vehicles or ships.

The first combat use of Harop did not involve Israeli troops, although the latest one, against Syrian forces, did. The first combat use took place in the Caucasus during another outbreak of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan is one of five current users of this Harop, the others being India, Turkey, Germany and Israel. The Harop was used against a bus carrying Armenian soldiers to the frontline, killing at least seven soldiers and destroying the bus. Another time a Harop was used to destroy an Armenian command post.

Unlike the original Harpy design, which was primarily designed to operate autonomously on SEAD missions, the Harop has was designed to either operate autonomously (like many UAVs) or under remote control. When operating autonomously it cannot be jammed and it is sent out to detect and home in on radar signals from specific types of enemy aid defense radars. In this respect it is like the classic HARM anti-radiation missile, using an anti-radar homing system to cripple enemy air defenses. Unlike Harpy, Harop can also be remotely controlled. This enables the operator to find and select static or moving targets using an onboard vidcam or FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) heat-sensing camera. While under remote control targets can be hit whether their radar is on or not. The remote control operation uses line-of-sight communications that are effective at up to 150 kilometers from the operator. That range can be extended using another aircraft or UAV to relay the control signals farther.

Even when sent out with a warhead Harop can return and land if it did not find a target and be reused. Harop also is a stealthy design which, in addition to its small size and quiet engine, makes it very difficult to detect by radar or infrared (heat detecting) sensors. This stealth feature was meant mainly for SEAD missions because most air defense systems have sensors meant to detect approaching hostile aircraft. If these sensors detect an approaching unidentified aircraft the radar can be promptly turned off to avoid a HARM missile or other SEAD airstrike. Modern HARM missiles get around that by capturing the location of a radar signal and them homing on where it came from, not the signal itself.

The early 2018 Israel used Harop against a Syrian Pantsir mobile anti-aircraft system. This was the first known SEAD use of Harop. India apparently plans to use many of its Harops against Pakistani or Chinese air defenses in wartime. Now Russia, Syria and Iran know that Harop works quite well in the role and more export orders may follow because of that. The original Harpy is still in use because when you need a SEAD capability you need as much of it as you can get. Harpy and Harop are inexpensive to maintain as reserve weapons, can easily be updated and are known to be effective.

The Russian Lantset has completed development and testing but won’t enter production unless there are some orders. Given that the Russian defense budget has been shrinking since 2014 that is unlikely.




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