Pentagon Plans to Weaponize More Drones


The U.S. Defense Department wants to arm more drones with lightweight, precision-guided weapons to support a larger range of combat missions.

As the war in Afghanistan ends and new threats emerge in the Asia-Pacific region, the Pentagon is considering adapting multiple weapons for drones, including the Cold War-era Hydra 70 rocket and the Laser Homing Attack or Anti-Tank Missile, or LAHAT, according to its latest report on the future of unmanned systems.

“Unmanned systems can be used in significantly different operating and threat conditions than manned platforms, come in a much wider range of classes and sizes than manned systems, can exhibit greater persistence and endurance than manned systems, and have the potential to support a large range of mission sets,” the recently released report states.

The 168-page document, “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: FY2013-2038,” outlines the department’s long-term strategy for adopting the technology and was approved by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, and Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Pentagon plans to spend almost $24 billion on unmanned air, ground and maritime systems over the next five years through fiscal 2018, according to the document. While research and development funding for drones is expected to fall by $1.3 billion — more than a third — from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014, overall spending on the technology is expected to total at least $4.1 billion in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

As the department develops systems that can operate in contested areas such as the Asia-Pacific, it’s trying to find ways to arm many of its nearly 11,000 aerial drones with existing weapons.

The Laser Homing Attack or Anti-Tank Missile, or LAHAT (Hebrew for “incandescence”), is a 3-foot-long, 30-pound projectile made by the Israel Aerospace Industries. A complete launcher houses four of the missiles. Initially developed for 105mm and 120mm tank guns, the weapon can hit targets from more than six miles away and has been tested on the RQ-5 Hunter drone, according to the Pentagon report.

The so-called SPIKE missile was developed by the U.S. Navy and Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA’s DRS Technologies unit as a portable weapon for Marines and Navy SEALs, according to the report. The 2-foot-long, 5-pound laser-guided missile could also be used to defense ships from swarms of small boats or aircraft, and it has undergone testing on DRS’s Sentry HP drone at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., the document states.

Even the Hydra 70 rocket, a longtime staple on attack helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache and a weapon that dates to the Korean War, is finding new life aboard unmanned aerial vehicles. The 3.5-foot-long, 13.5-pound rockets made by General Dynamics Corp. have been fired from a Vigilante drone developed by SAIC Inc. in a test at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground.

The Pentagon plans to arm unmanned helicopters with Hydra 70 rockets as part of the so-called Advanced Precision Weapon Kill System, which is designed to fill a gap between Hellfire missiles and unguided Hydra rockets. The Navy last year began arming the the MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter drone with the system, which uses a launcher originally developed for the Army’s canceled Comanche attack helicopter.

The Army and Marine Corps are also looking at ways to further incorporate the 2-pound kamikaze drone called Switchblade and developed by AeroVironment Inc. The system can be launched by hand and fly directly into a target.

“Adapting proven weapons technology with new concepts to take advantage of unmanned systems persistence and emerging net-centric capability, manned and unmanned teaming will be critical to improving the sensor-to-shooter equation and further decreasing in the kill chain timeline,” the report states.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • steve

    i would love to see 11k drones flying into Chinese airspace on a destroy mission

    revenge of the spratly islands/tibet/viet nam/ japan/turkistan

  • PolicyWonk

    I’m frankly surprised Global Hawks aren’t carrying at least one SDB…

    But anyone who’s surprised the DoD wants to arm more drones with more versatile weapons has been in self-induced coma.

    • STemplar

      I think there was talk about some weapons on the Triton version, but that was speculative l think and not actual real world.

      • PolicyWonk

        I would think an SDB would be a great weapon for the Global Hawk (and variants).

        Given they can glide a long way from the conventional plane that carries it, from Global Hawk that flies a lot higher (I’ve seen 60,000 ft published), the range of that weapon would be substantial indeed.

        That said, adding weight for weapons means less weight for fuel and sensor packages.

  • Musson

    The war in Afghanistan is not ending. It is winding down and we are pulling out. But it is not ending.

    The bloodiest fighting in Afghanistan history followed the pull out of Soviet troops. That is why Kabul ended up a city of rubble.

  • Tad

    Was wondering about the emphasis on drones when the US has basically declared victory in the GWOT and is pursuing its “pivot” to the western Pacific with its highly developed states which have sophisticated air defenses. It seems like the drones would have a hard time operating in such environments with their dependence on remote control, their hackable data streams, low maneuverability, etc…

    As a side note, the article says the SPIKE missile is a joint US-Italian development. It is not. SPIKE was developed by Rafael of Israel. Speaking only slightly tongue in cheek, that may explain the apparent contradiction I mentioned above. Two of the missiles cited in the article are Israeli, LAHAT and SPIKE, and the US government tends to funnel money by any means possible to Israel.

  • hibeam

    This makes so much sense I can hardly believe I am reading about it. The Pentagon can ride the coming explosion in drone technology driven by the private sector if they are smart.

  • Hefe

    I like the fact that they are using already existing assests to make our armed forces more lethal. It’s a smart, cost effective strategy.

  • Gregg Pennington

    12/31/2013 at 1135AM. How do you know they won’t be used against you ?

  • Lance

    I think its a waste bad idea to get humans out of the loop. Think Mr. Myers may be right. So is Skynet next and what idiot in the pentagon turn that on??? LOL

    • Won’t human beings have to program these drones? So they are not entirely out of the loop, now comes the question, a drone can’t log in its own hours. Who is going to take credit for eliminating the enemy stronghold?

  • Highguard

    Most everyone is on target with their comments. In addition to the multiple layers of adversary air defenses (with over the horizon radar), these are not Asia-Pacific theater weapons. The combat legs vehicles need to travel to be relevant in this theater require thousands of miles. With the exception of the RQ-170, RQ-180, RQ-4, J-UCAS D and UCLASS, these other prop-job UAVs are pretty useless. Even if they could be delivered by Swarm-capable platforms, you could destroy targets in adversary territory with a few survivable, long-range cruise missiles at a fraction of the cost/resources that would be req’d using dozens of small UAV swarms. The Pentagon continues to try and slip in SWA-relevant weapons under the guise of Pivot to the Pacific. No one should buy it and it is getting to the point of being comical, thus damaging credibility.

  • For the record, the Israeli Spike is a weapon system with capabilities similar to the U.S. Javelin. The spike missile mentioned in this article is another weapon entirely, fired from a system that looks a lot like the SMAW tube. The missile is much smaller than the Israeli spike.

    The confusion is understood – I experienced it when vendor I use began making parts for the Javelin anti-tank missile, I was certain they were mistaken, because the Javelin was a British anti-aircraft missile.

  • STemplar
  • Waterman

    I couldn’t help but see what looks like a tech with a hammer getting ready to hit a rocket nose-cone!!??

    • Wildfly

      Did he say “Hey ya’ll, watch this!” first?

  • Long Johann

    Current drones are fine for permissive airspace, but the Pacific Pivot requires stealthy drones and weapons. Afghanistan and Iraq were permissive airspace. The conditions in the Pacific are significantly different.

    One reason the RQ-4 Global Hawk doesn’t carry weapons is that most of its flight is pre-planned and autonomous. That doesn’t meet targeting timelines in a modern battlefield. Also, there’s no protocol for autonomous weapons release, and hopefully there will never be one.

  • jere

    This article reinforces the belief the U.S. is the top warmonger in the world and the Pentagon is the Devil’s Lair and simply full of bloodthirsty entities that are not human.

  • fuzznose

    just out of curiosity, when did “defense” become a verb? “used to defense ships”….the proper word is “defend”.
    Question on the resolution of the onboard camera and the monitor used by the operator of the drone: How good is the resolution? Can it tell the difference between a man and a woman from the altitude the drone is flying? Can the operator tell that the person is carrying a shovel rather than a rifle? Or that the people in the group the operator is watching is actually a wedding party? I’m asking this in all seriousness, because we know that pilots in manned aircraft are subject to mistakes in identifying things, how would an operator flying an unmanned drone be any more sure, especially if the signal from drone to operator takes a hit. Even if it’s a satellite link, using SHF or EHF, it’s still subject to atmospheric interference. I’d be leery about using armed UAVs, especially near our so-called “allies”.