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Tiny 2-Foot Missile Could Be ‘Months’ Away From Drone War

The drone war could be shrinking faster than anyone expected. Raytheon’s teeny, tiny drone missile might be ready to arm a small drone within months, the defense giant says.

Since 2009, Raytheon has been experimenting with what it understatedly calls a Small Tactical Munition. It’s a laser-guided missile less than two feet long and barely a 10th the weight of the Hellfire missiles that the iconic Predators and Reapers pack. And the wait for it may be almost over: “We’re just tweaking the software and running some environmental tests,” a business manager for Raytheon’s missile division told AIN Online.

That would open new worlds of possibility for the U.S. drone arsenal. There are a lot more small drones than there are Preds and Reapers. The small-fry robots are used as flying spies, since they’re too lightweight to arm — until now. The Small Tactical Munition is supposed to arm the Shadow, a drone that’s only 12 feet long. The U.S. fleet of killer drones would significantly increase. Alternatively, the existing, large killer drone fleet could carry far more weapons than they currently do.

There are two ways to look at that development. The straightforward way is to consider it a kind of deadly Moore’s Law. That’s certainly commensurate with the miniaturization of killer drones, like the kamikaze mash-up of missile and robot called the Switchblade.

A less intuitive interpretation, not mutually exclusive with the other one, is that a smaller drone war might not be a deadlier one. A smaller munition, with a smaller warhead, kills fewer people than a larger munition. That’s certainly how Raytheon sees it: “This is relevant to the strict rules of engagement,” said J.R. Smith from its missile shop.

That’s probably cold comfort if the armed robot fleet expands from hundreds to thousands before a single new ‘bot is purchased. But not all drones are equal: The Shadow has a loiter time of about four hours aloft before it runs out of gas; a Predator can hover for the better part of a day. But having an armed Shadow to launch would be a big asset to a commando team in, say, East Africa. Smaller also means cheaper, and easier to deploy.

Spencer Ackerman

Danger Room senior reporter Spencer Ackerman recently won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Reporting in Digital Media.

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