Loitering munitions have been in use for the past two decades in contested regions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, with great success in counterinsurgency. However, it was not until the Armenian military was devastated by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that the use of loitering munitions in a conventional war met with success.
Azerbaijan used the Israeli manufactured Harop to dismantle Armenian air defense systems and cripple their reliance on maneuvers with armored vehicles. The Harop has a small radar cross section, 9 hours of loiter time, and a capability to return to the operator for future use if a target did not present itself. The military equipment loss totaled to just over $4 billion.
Loitering munitions were not the only source of Azerbaijani success, but arguably it was the backbone in their battlefield proficiency. Although this weapon proved capable of diminishing Armenian military equipment, it could be argued that the psychological effect on soldiers had the largest effect in the outcome of territory gained.
Today, we are seeing much of the same unfold in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russia has purchased over 2,400 Shahed 136 loitering munition systems to employ against Ukraine since August 2022. Although Russia is not using them against air defense systems and armored vehicles; instead, they are taking power away from thousands of people all over central and eastern Ukraine by striking critical infrastructure nodes. The Russian military has gone as far as bringing over Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) drone operators from Iran to conduct training in Crimea to use their loitering munitions to greater effect and increase survivability.
Loitering munitions have become the tip of the spear in the future of warfare, challenging all conventional assumptions in war-fighting doctrine. Modern air defense systems and associated tactics, techniques, and procedures have been developed to counter manned aircraft, which are much more detectable via radar and infrared detection systems than a small, slow-flying warhead. All weapons to counter aircraft in the past two decades have been designed and optimized to counter fighter and bomber aircraft. Loitering munitions have the capability to find the gap in Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) across the globe.
The Chinese Communist Party has taken note of these recent conflicts and the overwhelming successes of loitering munitions. In terms of Anti-Access/Aerial Denial that the Chinese military would like to exercise in the East and South China Sea, it is easy to see how such a capability could integrate into an already capable military. In 1994, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), the Israeli manufacturer of the Harop that saw success in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, sold an undisclosed amount of Harpy anti-radiation drones to China. The United States objected to the arms sale and by 2003, Israel backed out of an agreement to update the drones and agreed to pay China approximately $350 million in compensation.
The Chinese defense budget for fiscal year 2022 came in at 1.45 trillion renminbi (approximately $229 billion), the second largest in the world behind the United States, with a 7.1 percent increase from the previous year. With a steady annual increase in military spending comes proof of combat drone development.
In late September 2022, the world received its first look into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Squadron. The unit, stationed in the northwest desert of China, is responsible for the testing and integration of unmanned technology from two standpoints. The primary function should come as no surprise as the PLAAF likely wants to shift to unmanned systems to be the core of their ISR inventory. However, the second goal is to integrate the use of precision guided munitions onto existing platforms. The Wing Loong II or GJ-2 was showcased with dramatic effect, showing footage of targeting aerial platforms and ground vehicles. According to a spokesperson, “In only several months, they managed to master live-fire missions and reach combat readiness in the same year of deployment.” This follows the trend of the past decade of a sharp uptick in technological increases paired with development of complex tactics, techniques, and procedures for aviation units within the Chinese military. Loitering munitions may not have been part of the showcase for the PLAAF, but the core requirement for drone implementation to use precision-guided munitions is a key step.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other services may be developing and refining UAV tactics and technology, but have not implemented loitering munitions into their force. However, a new Chinese loitering munition was showcased at the Thailand Defense and Security 2022 exhibition in August 2022. Chinese Aerospace Company ALIT put their FH901 on display. It is advertised as 9 kilograms with a warhead of 3.5 kilograms. It is equipped with an electro-optical and infrared gimbaled seeker and can be controlled by the operator via line of sight data link at the advertised distance of 15 kilometers. The FH901 is canister-launched and has an advertised flight time of over 60 minutes with sustained speeds of 100-150 kilometers per hour. The FH901 shares the terminal dive profile akin to other systems like the Harop and can reach a terminal velocity of 288 km/h.
This weapon is an example of what the PLA and other echelons of Chinese military may integrate into their forces in large quantities to overwhelm their adversary’s air defenses and attrite military equipment and personnel at land or sea. China is likely to approach loitering munitions in two ways that will break from current tradition. It is likely that the PLAAF will want to integrate air-launched loitering munitions from their low observable aircraft and to find uses for them at sea to disrupt adversary naval radars that support early warning and fires. This assessment is supported by a2020 Chinese International Technology Group Corporation video that depicted the Feihong 97 stealth UAV launching the FH901.
The character of warfare is something that is always changing. In recent years, that character has been shaped heavily by information warfare coupled with the use of loitering munitions. The proof is on the battlefield in the Southern Caucuses, Ukraine, and in the defense budget of China. It comes as no surprise that Taiwan is investing heavily into counter-UAV systems to protect their capital and other key areas of interest from the potential onslaught of China coming over the strait. The tactics for these weapons are still being refined every day in actual combat, and China is certainly taking notes on how to do it better.