U.S. Special Operations Command is interested in adding loitering munitions to some of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy special operations boats. The new weapons could give American special operators a new tool to strike at specific individualsand other relatively small, but important targets, in both low- and high-end conflicts, without necessarily having to actually go ashore.
The Pentagon’s top special operations headquarters validated the requirement for what is formally called the Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE) program in March 2018, according to a briefing from the Special Operations Command’s Program Executive Office-Maritime given at the National Defense Industry Association’s annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in May 2018. The Navy is now conducting feasibility studies to see what it might take to add a loitering munitions capability to the Combatant Craft Medium(CCM) and Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH) boats specifically.
“MPE is a family of standoff, loitering, man-in-the-loop weapon systems deployed on combatant craft,” according to the presentation. “[It is] capable of targeting individuals, groups, vehicles, high-value targets, and small oceangoing craft with low collateral damage.”
The full MPE program will work to develop the necessary modifications to the boats, launch system, and the munitions themselves. The U.S. Navy SEALs almost exclusively use CCMs and CCHs, as well as smaller Combatant Craft Assaults (CCA), primarily to sneak ashore to conduct various missions and then exfiltrate the area afterward. You can read about them all in more detail in this past War Zone feature.
A U.S. Navy CCM.
The May 2018 briefing did not include any specific details about what kind of performance or other attributes Special Operations Command or the Navy are looking for in the new weapons they want to add to these boats.
A sort of hybrid between a missile and a drone, a loitering munition is typically supposed to operate over a particular area while essentially conducting a surveillance and reconnaissance mission, but with the added ability to directly engage the enemy once it locates them. Since operators are flying these loitering munitions as they would any other drone, they get to see what it sees right up until it hits the target.
One of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command's CCHs. There are only two of these craft in service with a third under construction.
This feature, known as a man-in-the-loop guidance system, improves accuracy by allowing the user to take control and shift the point of aim to better effect the target or account for the opponent’s movement at the very end of the weapon’s flight path. It also provides an option to abort the strike right at the last moment to avoid hitting incident civilians or if the target is no longer reachable.
The briefing slide from the 2018 SOFIC gathering shows pictures of two notional weapons, Rafael’s Spike NLOS and the member of the UVision Hero family. The former missile is not generally considered a loitering munition since it doesn’t have an ability to flying around the battlefield for an extended amount of time, but it does have a man-in-the-loop capability. Both of these firms are based in Israel, which isn't surprising as that country pioneered the use of both loitering munitions and man-in-the-loop targeting.
An overview of the MPE program that Special Operations Command's Program Executive Office-Maritime present at the 2018 SOFIC gathering.
The Hero, however, which UVision has brought to the U.S. market with the help of American defense contractor Raytheon, is very much a loitering design. The full series includes a range of capabilities from man-portable versions, such as the six and a half pound Hero-30 with its 30-minute endurance, to the more than 275-pound Hero-1250, which the company says is suitable for striking larger, strategic targets more than 120 miles away.
The MPE programs’ focus on smaller targets, both on land and at sea, suggest that what Special Operations Command and the Navy have in mind and may be closer to the Hero-30 end of the spectrum. The weapons, along with their launch and fire control systems, will also have to fit onboard the relatively small, approximately 60-foot long CCMs or the significantly more advanced CCHs, which are only around 12 feet longer.