Suicide Drones: Are Tiny Missiles That 'Loiter' in the Air for Hours the Future of Assassination Wars?

Suicide drone kamikaze loitering munitions UAV
A picture taken on June 21, 2011 at the Bourget airport in France shows the Israeli Harop drone during the International Paris Air Show. PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images

In April 2016, on what seemed like just another day in the 30-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an Armenian military transport was trundling along close to the Azerbaijan frontier.

Unknown to the soldiers seated within, an Israeli-made Harop "suicide drone" was lazily loitering above, hovering, waiting for the moment to crash into the vehicle. When it did, seven men were dead before they knew what hit them.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not one that grabs many international headlines, but is illustrative of the growing reach and potency of unmanned aerial vehicles—or UAVs—which can be found on every inhabited continent, fielded by states from superpowers like the U.S. down to geopolitical minnows like Azerbaijan.

In drone technology—for export especially—Israeli companies have fast become world-leaders. Whether for reconnaissance or combat, military, police and paramilitary units all over the world are keen customers. But the so-called suicide drone—or "loitering munitions"—industry is growing, with Israeli tech at the forefront.

At least nine nations—including China—are believed to be operating either the Harpy or Harop loitering munitions systems, both made by Israel Aerospace Industries. Israel may be leading the pack in sales, but China, Russia and the U.S. are all working on their own indigenous offerings. This is a weapon that all militaries, big or small, want in their armories.

This week, it was reported that Israeli company UVision is planning to open a subsidiary in the U.S. The company is an expert in loitering munitions—unmanned weapons that can hang above their target for hours at a time, before diving to deliver their explosive payload.

UVision produce a range of loitering munitions, including the Hero-30, which troops can carry on their backs in a canister and launch straight from the battlefield. Weighing under 7 pounds, it will give soldiers a far more targeted way of attacking their enemies, especially specific high-value individuals.

U.S. defense manufacturer Raytheon—which already has its own version called the Coyote—has agreed to work on the Hero-30, Defense News reported, while another U.S. firm, AeroVironment, is working on the Switchblade.

For all their deadly potential, there has thus far been little combat use of suicide drones. The world is now familiar with drone warfare, well-versed in the weapons that have circled battlefields since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. They have become synonymous with modern warfare, whether used for reconnaissance, assassination or simply propaganda.

But reported uses of loitering munitions has been restricted to the 2016 Armenian attack and some low-tech efforts from militant and rebel groups in Venezuela, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The most sophisticated use by non-state actors has undoubtedly been by Houthi rebels in Yemen, fighting against government forces backed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which in turn is supported by the U.S., U.K. and other western nations.

Throughout the four-year conflict, the Houthis have relied on asymmetric warfare to punch above their weight against their much more technologically advanced and well-funded enemies. Their close links with Iran have also informed tactics and strategy, and the Qasef-1 loitering munitions used on several occasions are suspiciously similar to Iranian weapons systems.

The Houthis have used their drone armory—not all of which are kamikaze in nature—to attack military positions, airports and radar installations. Some carry warheads, but others have simply been used as improvised guided missiles, striking their targets at speed and with impressive accuracy.

Others have employed airburst munitions, exploding above populated areas for added devastation. In January, for example, a suicide drone attack on a military parade in Yemen killed several troops, including a senior commander. Though often using relatively rudimentary technology, the Houthis have certainly demonstrated the potency and flexibility of these weapons.

Of course, as with any drone warfare, the use of this niche type of weapon poses ethical challenges. Other guided munitions typically have a short operation time—they are launched at a target or an area where an operator expects there to be enemy activity.

But with loitering weapons, the drone can be sent up to hang over an area for several hours at a time, waiting for a target to present itself. And if, as some have warned, loitering munitions are given the ability to make autonomous attack decisions based on a pre-programmed set of criteria, they would circle over an area until their software decided it was time to kill.

Drones currently need a GPS or radio link to a human controller, which makes them vulnerable to blocking or hijacking. But as weapons become more autonomous and AI capabilities improve, a drone could visually locate and attack a specific target like a prominent building, military commander or other important target. And a swarm of them working in tandem could be even deadlier.

While modern militaries still largely rely on air-dropped laser-guided munitions and cruise missiles for their most destructive tasks, the hang time, accuracy and constant control offered in suicide drones are attractive. Before long, fighters on the battlefield may face a more personal solution.