The U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, known as NAVSEA, is about to place the biggest order on record for loitering munitions, also known as kamikaze drones. The order will total well over $1 billion dollars. What this money will buy has not been revealed, as the Navy declines to discuss the project. However, budget documents reveal a surprising level of detail.
NAVSEA is responsible for engineering, building, buying, and maintaining the Navy’s fleet of ships and its combat systems. It is not responsible for the Navy’s aircraft, which fall under the Naval Air Systems Command. It seems drones that only go one way count as missiles.
The contract to develop and produce a loitering munition was first mentioned in a solicitation notice issued last November. The notice states that unlike most government contracts, this one will not go to competitive tender. There is only one supplier who can meet the Navy’s requirements: Raytheon Company. (Raytheon declined an invitation to discuss the deal and referred us to NAVSEA.)
The Navy has plenty of guided missiles and several types of drones. It is a major user of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines. But it does not currently deploy loitering munitions. According to the budget documents, the new contract aims to fill a crucial gap in capabilities.
Kamikaze Drones: Loitering Munitions 101
Loitering munitions can circle or search a target area for an extended period. Azerbaijan made extensive use of Israel-made Harop loitering munition in its conflict with Armenia. These munitions stay in the air for up to nine hours before attacking. And unlike cruise missiles, loitering munitions typically have sensors so the operator can find and identify targets. This means that a loitering munition does not need to be launched at a specific target. For example, the Harpy, a close relative of the Harop, can detect and classify radar emissions. A wave of Harpies can be launched to knock out air defense radar before the aircraft go in.
The other major advantage of loitering munitions is that they can be made cheap and simple. The Iran-made Shahed kamikaze drones bombarding Ukraine are nicknamed “mopeds” for their puttering engines as they cruise at under 120 miles per hour. Produced at an estimated $20,000 apiece, the Shaheds are so numerous that some manage to get through defenses. Similarly, Ukraine has been making so-called Ali Baba attack drones out of hobby kits from China. It has also turned racing drones into deadly tactical loitering munitions costing just a few hundred dollars apiece. Large numbers of low-cost loitering munitions can overwhelm defenses or act as a missile sponge, soaking up surface-to-air missiles that could otherwise target expensive aircraft or cruise missiles.
So what educated guesses can we make about the Navy’s billion-dollar kamikaze done or loitering munition, a project so urgent that Raytheon is uniquely suited to carry it out?
One possibility is a development of Raytheon’s 3,000-pound Tomahawk into a loitering munition. This could be the same size and weight as the existing weapon, so it could be launched by the same ships and subs with no new equipment. The Tomahawk currently has an efficient turbofan jet engine which might be upgraded. Alternatively, the warhead could be made smaller, facilitating a greater fuel load to increase loiter time. New sensors and communications would turn it into a networked loitering munition able to orbit the battle area and strike targets as they appear. The Navy this year purchased 50 Tomahawks at almost $2 million per unit, so after development costs are taken out, the billion-dollar budget could acquire at most several hundred cruise missiles and loitering munitions.
Another Raytheon product that might be turned into a loitering munition is the Miniature Air Launched Decoy, or MALD. Originally developed under a DARPA contract in the 1990s, the jet-powered ADM-160B MALD is 9 feet long, weighs 250 pounds and flies at over 600 mph. Radar reflectors give the small decoy the appearance of a much larger aircraft — it can even imitate a B-52 — and it can carry out pre-programmed maneuvers to give the impression that it is part of an attack force.
One aircraft can carry several MALDs in addition to its usual load of bombs and missiles. It can use them to distract defenses away from the real attack. Ukraine has used MALDs to mask Storm Shadow missile strikes.
According to Raytheon, the latest MALD-J is able to loiter in the target area, jamming or confusing enemy radar with an electronic warfare package. Swapping the payload for a warhead and sensors would turn the MALD into a tactical loitering munition to engage radar and other targets of opportunity.
The U.S. Air Force bought a batch of MALDs in 2018 for less than $400,000 a unit. A billion-dollar contract could therefore include a couple of thousand MALD-type loitering munitions.
But the most likely candidate is something much smaller that could be made in far greater numbers.
Enter the Swarm
Raytheon also makes the Coyote, an electric-powered, tube-launched expendable drone weighing just 15 pounds. The company has also demonstrated a bigger, jet-powered version for intercepting other drones.
The Navy’s LOCUST program — Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology — has been evolving drone swarms since 2015, using Raytheon Coyotes as the test vehicles. In LOCUST demonstrations, dozens of drones work together like a flock of birds. They act as a single entity under the control of one operator. Raytheon mentions the “special swarming software” in materials about Coyote, indicating it now comes standard.
In 2021 the Navy showed an unspecified drone swarm attacking a ship target in an exercise for the first time. This may have been the final capstone demonstration for LOCUST.
The Navy’s 2024 R&D budget describes a project called Goalkeeper to meet a “Joint Emergent Operational Need,” which means a contingency operation involving more than one service. Goalkeeper is described as a continuation of LOCUST.
“The Navy is pursuing a commercial-off-the-shelf solution with autonomous government-provided software and a government-provided launcher system,” according to the budget document. (My emphasis.) This indicates the hardware is something already in production by a company. “The system will be expeditionary and deployable by small teams to support operations in various environments.”
This strongly suggests that Goalkeeper will have Coyote drones as hardware, with a new software suite. The budget says that software will include new Automated Target Recognition capabilities, suggesting the drones will find and identify their own targets.
Buy Before You Fly?
The R&D budget notes that Goalkeeper requires concurrent procurement funding, because the need to start production is urgent. The production element appears in the Navy’s FY24 Ammunition Budget with a first batch of 900 Goalkeeper munitions, known as Autonomous Weapon Systems, costing $270,000 each for a total of $243 million.
The sheer size of this purchase, with an even bigger buy of $500 million projected for FY2025, suggests that Goalkeeper must be the loitering munition in the Raytheon announcement from November 2022.
$270,000 seems a high price for a small drone. According to a 2016 piece in Military.com, the Coyotes cost about $30,000 in today’s prices, suggesting some serious inflation. The price might reflect a larger air vehicle, but the detail that it is deployable by small teams shows it must still be small, if not backpackable. One developer working on loitering munitions for Ukraine told us he would expect something with the Coyote’s specifications to cost less than $10,000.
At $270,000 apiece, though, the $1.1 billion Raytheon contract would purchase 4,000 loitering munitions. If dozens or hundreds are launched at a time, and large volumes are the entire point of the swarming approach in LOCUST, this offers a very limited magazine. (Ukraine is making, and using, thousands of small loitering munitions per month — and these are launched singly.)
Cost seems to have influenced the U.S. Army’s decision not to buy further Switchblade 300 munitions at $60,000 per shot. After all, they have seen Ukrainian forces modify commercial drones to hit Russian vehicles with bigger warheads for under $500 per shot.
Swarming munitions are the future, and Goalkeeper should deliver an urgently needed capability for the Navy. Bypassing the competitive tender process, and going ahead with a production order for a vehicle which has not yet been developed and tested, will get that delivery sooner, but at a significantly increased cost and greater risk.
We have to assume there are good military reasons for the Navy keeping the project under such deep cover. The name Goalkeeper is strongly suggestive of a last line of defense, and the urgency implies an emerging threat such as swarms of opposing drones or drone boats, but this may be misdirection. The hope is that the deep cover is not due to an unwillingness to discuss just how much bang the U.S. taxpayer is getting for their billion bucks.
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