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'Loitering Munition' prowler-bomb in Welsh test

Lurking sky-shell gives new meaning to fire-and-forget

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A consortium of missile companies has announced a successful test firing of a sophisticated new "loitering munition" intended for service with the British Army.

According to Steve Wadey, UK boss of pan-European missile group MBDA:

"The successful Fire Shadow firing provides tangible evidence that the UK Complex Weapons Industry, led by MBDA, has responded to the challenges of MoD's Defence Industrial Strategy... This firing is an outstanding achievement for all those involved in Team Loitering Munition and also underpins the strategic partnering relationship with MoD for the Complex Weapons sector."

The Loitering Munition is so called because it gets fired off into the sky and then lurks about for up to ten hours. At any time, it can be ordered to suddenly plunge down onto a target and explode. If no target crops up, it will self-destruct before running out of fuel. According to the British Army, targets for the Fire Shadow lurker-bombs would be found by various means, including the use of the future "Watchkeeper" surveillance drone.

Loitering Munitions is a keystone of Indirect Fire Precision Attack, IFPA, the Royal Artillery's plan to avoid being driven out of business by its rivals in the blowing-things-up-from-afar sector. For almost a century now, artillerymen the world over have competed against airmen for work. During much of that time, the cannoneers have felt safe in the knowledge that aircraft laboured under several terrible handicaps: they couldn't operate in bad weather, they couldn't stay overhead for very long, and they couldn't normally get their bombs anywhere near the target - certainly not without flying so low they'd quite likely be shot down.

But since the early 1990s technology has started to seriously change the game. Smart bombs or missiles can hit with pinpoint accuracy from on high, in many cases regardless of weather. Better yet, they can be carried by unmanned aircraft which can provide a presence overhead for long periods with comparative ease. At the moment this still involves a serious manpower burden, but much of the manpower in question need never leave its home countries, and the rest doesn't need to go further than a nice secure airbase in theatre.

Against this sort of background, the idea of putting a 700-person artillery regiment - or even a battery of guns - outside the wire somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan is starting to look seriously unattractive. The soldiers and their huge fleets of heavy vehicles need vast amounts of fuel, ammo and supplies. They and their logistics convoys are all targets for local insurgents, and the guns - while able to open fire quickly and keep firing for a long time - can't move about fast and safely the way aircraft can*.

There are artillerymen in Afghanistan, and occasionally the big guns do go out into the field and get fired. But the gunners, as tends to happen nowadays, are spending a lot of time in the infantry role - and a lot of time operating drone aircraft. Meanwhile, Coalition troops are tending to call for air cover more and more, and there is huge demand for "orbits" - permanent overhead patrols kept up by unmanned Predator drones, able to watch round the clock and strike at a moment's notice. An armed Predator orbit is a loitering munition and Watchkeeper combo writ large - and it's already in service.

But Predator-type armed platforms are run by the air force, in both the UK and America. The British army gunners are hoping they can sideline the idea of having drone aircraft which can drop their own weapons. Rather, you would have unarmed Watchkeepers teamed with loitering munitions - both systems operated from within theatre, by soldiers rather than airmen.

The soldiers have certain points in their favour here. It's very hard to make air forces devote resources to things like Predator orbits at the expense of lovely sexy fast jets - the US defense secretary has lately described the process as "like pulling teeth", and the RAF has barely bestirred itself at all. Air forces worldwide, when they see a rival service operating an aircraft of any type, tend first to seize control of it and then strangle it in favour of something they'd like better. The Army way of operating drones is potentially a lot cheaper, too, as they don't feel a need to have everything done by expensively trained wings-on-chest officers.

So one can sympathise with the Royal Artillery and their IFPA Watchkeeper'n'loiter-bomb scheming to some extent. But overall, for us taxpayers the whole spectacle is an unedifying one. It would be nice to see the armed forces simply buying lots of the new US Army Predator version - the "Sky Warrior", which flies itself and needs no shifts of expensive pilots. Sky Warriors should cost less than £10m a pop - that, after all, is said by the UK MoD to be the replacement cost of a much bigger Reaper.

Unarmed Watchkeepers, by contrast, are to cost £17m each - and then you need several daily salvoes of Fire Shadow lurking-death to back them up. The cost of Fire Shadow? Hard to say, but IFPA is expected to cost a cool £500m.

Why don't Her Majesty's cannoneers just order a hundred-odd Sky Warriors instead of their 54 puny Watchkeepers? It would cost the same. Then they wouldn't really need Fire Shadow, and the army could spend that half-billion on something else. Like some desperately-needed Chinook helicopters for instance. Or maybe paying their soldiers decently, so that people would actually join up.

Why don't they do that? Because the RAF wouldn't let them, that's why. Even if the slug-balancers relented, it would mean a lot of people in various arms plants here in Europe having to go and find honest work. ®

*Except when slung under a helicopter - but this does tend to make people think you might as well cut out the middleman and have the aircraft drop the munitions itself.

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