In the present wars, the military is increasingly using remote-controlled warheads. The German defence ministry calls such weapons “worrying”. But after similar plans a decade ago, the Bundeswehr is again considering to procure them.
For the first time, the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall has won an order for its loitering munition. According to a press release from last September, the unnamed customer is a special forces unit of a NATO state. Rheinmetall states the value of the order to be in the “single-digit million euro range”. Delivery is scheduled until 2023.
The NATO buyer, which according to speculation could be Hungary, has ordered the HERO-30. This is the smallest version of the HERO family of “loiter-capable munitions”, which can circle over their target for up to 30 minutes. It is launched from a tube using compressed air, unfolds its pivoting wings in flight and is powered by a silent electric motor.
“Strategic partnership” with Israeli manufacturer
Originally, the remote-controlled warheads came from the Israeli company UVision, with which Rheinmetall entered into a “strategic partnership” in October 2021. In the meantime, the systems are manufactured by its Italian subsidiary RWM Italia S.p.A., according to Rheinmetall. The company is also offering to equip its new drone tanks with the weapon.
Rheinmetall and UVision list six different models of the HERO on their websites. The HERO-30 and HERO-90 versions are lightweight and can be carried by soldiers. Only from the HERO-120 onwards is the weapon considered armour-piercing. Each individual system includes the single or multiple launchers, one or more warheads, the radio system and a module for control. All models are equipped with high-resolution electro-optical sensors and infrared cameras.
When attacked with such a system, it is completely destroyed. For this reason, they are usually referred to as “munitions”. Rheinmetall’s term “remote-controlled air-launched precision-strike munition” also goes in this direction. Critics, however, also call the weapon a kamikaze drone. This is because the operators can follow the attack with the help of a camera, enter a different target or abort the mission at any time.
Kamikaze drones on both sides in the Ukraine war
Loitering munition is currently spreading rapidly all over the world. The advantage for the army is that it can reconnoitre and track a target at the same time and then attack it. Compared to other flying platforms for surveillance and combat, loitering munitions are also very cost-effective.
In the war over Nagorno-Karabakh two years ago, the attackers from Azerbaijan had already used kamikaze drones from Israel in addition to combat drones. In the Ukraine war, the weapons are currently being used on both sides. Ukraine flies Switchblades from the USA and Warmates from Poland. Russia uses its own Zala Kyb, but in the meantime the rather small weapon has been supplemented by the extremely high-impact Shahed-136 from Iran.
Both Rheinmetall and UVision are noticeably proud of the order placed with a NATO customer. The scope of supply also includes a simulator, training courses as well as logistics and services. The contract was awarded under non-disclosure clauses, according to Rheinmetall’s press release. However, it became known “that the customer had carried out a market study before awarding the contract”. This, says Rheinmetall, had revealed that HERO munition was already in use by other militaries such as the US Navy.
“Threat potentials towards the Bundeswehr”
The German Ministry of Defence sees the global spread of loitering munition as a “worrying development, irrespective of the degree of automation of the systems”. In its answer to a parlamentary question, the ministry highlights in particular the “threat potentials towards the Bundeswehr” and its allies.
However, the German government could soon join in the new arms race. The Bundeswehr Procurement Office is also currently conducting a market study. The contractor is the Bavarian armament service provider AMDC GmbH. Subsequently, the company is to draft a “research and technology roadmap for loitering munition”. Procurement could then presumably take place for the army.
If the Bundeswehr were to decide in favour of Rheinmetall’s kamikaze drones, the German military would, after all, come into possession of the long-coveted weapon after a decade. Back in the noughties, Rheinmetall had developed a system with loitering munition at the request of the Bundeswehr.
Original plans cancelled
This WABEP (Wirkmittel zur Abstandsfähigen Bekämpfung von Einzel- und Punktzielen) would have consisted of two different flying drones: Rheinmetall’s KZO was to perform military reconnaissance and mark targets. These would then be destroyed by a HAROP from the Israeli defence company IAI.
Rheinmetall has already carried out “practical tests and flight trials” on behalf of the Bundeswehr, including convoy escort, “taking out” enemy installations and attacking vehicles on the move. According to the German Ministry of Defence, the engagement of “particularly significant targets” was also rehearsed. According to the state of the art at the time, however, such an attack could not have been aborted.
According to the 2009 Bundeswehr plan, the Ministry of Defence wanted to procure two WABEP systems, each with 42 drones plus ground stations, with operational readiness envisaged from 2013. In the end, however, the ministry decided against it. Among the reasons, it cites the “financial planning framework conditions”. The possible procurement of the WABEP could only have taken place from 2019, but then it would have been “technically obsolete” according to the assessment at the time.
Image: The HERO drones can also be integrated into Rheinmetall tanks (Rheinmetall).