Army Eyes Unmanned Launcher Trucks Able To Fire Missiles Loaded With Swarming Munitions

The U.S. Army is interested in the idea of a fleet of unmanned trucks carrying launchers based on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, that would be capable of firing the now-in-development Precision Strike Missile, or PrSMs, and other future long-range surface-to-surface missiles. The service also wants to explore proposals for loading those PrSMs, and other missiles, with submunitions that can work together as a networked swarm.

The Aviation and Missile Technology Consortium (AMTC) outlined the Army’s interest in these concepts in a call for white papers earlier this month. AMTC is a quasi-public entity that operates through the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Aviation and Missile Center with a focus on using smaller, non-traditional contracts to rapidly explore and even prototype novel aviation and missile technologies.

A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launcher fires a 227mm practice rocket. The Army is interested in an unmanned derivative of this system to fire various future longer-range missiles., US Army

Of the 19 areas of interest that AMTC outlined in its January 2021 contracting notice, “Unmanned Launcher Prototypes for LRPF [Long Range Precision Fires] Missiles” and “Maneuvering Submunition Prototypes for LRPF Missiles” are particularly interesting.

“The Government is seeking proposals for the development of an unmanned launcher prototype for Long Range Precision Fires missile systems to include larger missiles than the current MLRS Family of Munitions (MFOM),” AMTC’s notice says. “Next generation launcher prototypes must be unmanned, highly mobile, C-130 transportable, cab-less, HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] chassis-based, and capable of supervised-autonomy and remote operation while being compatible with existing LRPF missiles.”

It’s not clear what is meant here by “existing LRPF missiles.” At present, the only weapon the Army fields in this category is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a relatively small ballistic missile with a maximum range of around 190 miles. 

A HIMARS launcher fires an ATACMS missile., Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is now in the process of developing the PrSM for the Army, which was originally set to have a maximum range of around 310 miles. This reflected a range limit imposed by the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, between the United States and Russia, which collapsed in 2019. There are plans for a test later this year to demonstrate the ability of this weapon, which is presently scheduled to begin entering service in 2023, to hit targets at distances well beyond 310 miles.

The Army is also looking at future anti-ship derivative of the PrSM, known as the Land-Based Anti-Ship Missile (LBASM), which would feature a multi-mode guidance system that would enable it to hit moving ships. The service is also looking to acquire land-based versions of the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and SM-6 surface-to-air missile, the latter of which also has surface-to-surface capabilities, as part of its LRPF efforts.

While ground-launched Tomahawks and SM-6s will require larger launchers, the PrSM is already intended to be fired from existing launcher vehicles designed to fire ATACMS, as well as shorter-range 227mm guided artillery rockets, including the M142 HIMARS that is the stated desired starting point for the proposed unmanned launcher vehicles for the Army. The M142 uses a 6×6 Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) truck chassis and has proven to be a capable design that has seen significant combat action with U.S. forces, including in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

“The unmanned launcher must contain a lightweight turret capable of elevating and launching larger missiles while maintaining compatibility with legacy MFOM,” the AMTC contracting notice adds “Unmanned operation requires leader-follower autonomy, drive-by-wire, and remote launcher turret and fire control operation.”

A semi-autonomous version of the M142 loaded with PrSMs could help expand the capabilities and flexibility of future Army missile units without the need for significant additional personnel. With the features AMTC has outlined, a relatively small team could potentially lead multiple launch units to a designated launch site, fire a volley of missiles, and then be more readily able to reposition to a new location, both to avoid counter attacks or get in range of new targets, if necessary. Unmanned launch vehicles could make it easier to rapidly distribute them across a broader area to reduce their vulnerability, to begin with.

It’s interesting to note that the Marine Corps, which is in the midst of a major overhaul of its force structure, with particular emphasis on distributed operations and long-range ground-launched missile capabilities, is also exploring an unmanned land-based missile launcher as part of its Remotely Operated Ground Unit Expeditionary Fires (ROGUE Fires) program. The proposed ROGUE Fires launch vehicle is based on the 4×4 Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), making it smaller than what the Army is interested in, but it is still expected to use an actual launcher assembly derived from the one found on HIMARS.

The AMTC notice makes clear that the Army is interested in PrSMs or other future long-range missiles it develops as part of its over-arching LRPF initiative being able to release groups of submunitions that can then work together as networked swarms. The submunitions could have the ability to operate as loitering munitions, also known as suicide drones, after being ejected from the larger missile, as well.

“Modular payloads should be demonstrated to collaboratively detect, target, and strike high payoff targets that are moving, have moved, are poorly located, or are dispersed,” the call for white papers explains. “The concept must be a hardened deployable payload airframe and include a dispense [sic] mechanization compatible with long range fires delivery systems such as Precision Strike Missile (PrSM). The payloads must be autonomous and capable of collaboratively detecting, targeting, and striking and will need to be integrated into PrSM for a flight demonstration.”

The obvious benefit here would be the ability to rapidly launch swarms of munitions deep into hostile territory where enemy forces are known to be, generally, but where their exact positions are unknown. The swarm could then rapidly search across a relatively broad area for those targets autonomously, engaging them as they are discovered. By this same mechanism, an area could potentially be denied to an enemy through the rapid deployment of precision-guided submunitions that could then loiter for some amount of time, waiting for potential threats to pop up.

Swarms inherently have the ability to confuse and overwhelm enemy air defenses, as well. This could transform a PrSM or other missile loaded with swarming submunitions into a valuable ground-launched tool for suppressing or destroying enemy air defenses, missions commonly abbreviated as SEAD and DEAD. Certain submunitions might also be able to carry electronic warfare jammers, allowing the entire swarm to carry out a multi-faceted attack. The Army has already been exploring more broadly how artillery and missile systems on the ground could help clear a path for friendly aircraft in future operations, including using targeting information from aerial and other offboard platforms.

Since at least 2018, the Army has actively investigating ways to deploy loitering munitions, potentially with swarming capabilities, at extended ranges, in general. This includes the Single Multi-Mission Attack Missile (SMAM) program, which the service has described as “an emerging precision loitering missile capable of engaging enemy tanks and other high-value targets out to 35 kilometers [~22 miles] or farther.” There is also the Missile Multiple Simultaneous Engagement Technologies (MSET) effort, “a suite of technologies providing the capability to rapidly defeat swarming and dispersed threats, providing simultaneous multiple launch, control and supervised autonomous terminal engagement of multiple missiles against various targets.” Both of these projects focused on individually-launched munitions, rather than submunitions that could go into a larger missile, though.

An Army graphic showing notional Single Multi-Mission Attack Missiles (SMAM), which could be launched from vehicles, ships, or aircraft., US Army
A graphic offering a brief overview of the Missile Multiple Simultaneous Engagement Technologies (MSET) project., US Army

The Army is also in the process of developing a family of air-launched vehicles with swarming capabilities, to include possible loitering munitions, as part of its Air Launch Effects (ALE) program, which you can read more about in detail in this past War Zone piece. The service has also been experimenting with a concept involving a hypersonic missile capable of deploying loitering munitions at extended ranges, dubbed Vintage Racer, as well as exploring the idea of deploying swarms and other payloads via high-altitude balloons

Earlier this month, the Air Force also demonstrated a new air-launched swarming munition capability as part of its Golden Horde program. All of this, of course, follows on from years of work across the U.S. military on networked swarms of small drones, including tests by the Air Force and the Navy between 2014 and 2016 of air-launched Perdix miniature unmanned aircraft.

All of this is part of an over-arching effort by the Army to develop tiers of longer-range strike capabilities that are heavily networked together and can rapidly prosecute a variety of targets across a broad area. This larger vision also includes work on new medium-range ballistic missiles, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, superguns capable of engaging targets out to distances of 1,000 miles, and electromagnetic railguns.

An “operational view” the US Army included in a briefing in 2018 showing how various future longer-range strike and more traditional artillery systems would operate together on the battlefield., US Army

The Army is now eying adding unmanned launchers firing missiles loaded with swarms of submunitions to its planned mix of future advanced long-range weaponry.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.