The Marine Corps is doubling down on loitering munitions ahead of the next big war

Here comes the swarm.
Jared Keller Avatar
Marine Corps Hero-400 loitering munitions
A U.S. Marine Corps Hero-400 loitering munition drone is staged before flight on San Clemente Island, California, May 25, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel Childs)

If there’s one major lesson the Marine Corps leaders have taken from the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s that swarming loitering munitions are the way of the future. 

As part of the Marine Corps’s annual update on Commandant Gen. David Berger’s controversial Force Design 2030 modernization roadmap released on Monday, the service announced that it plans on initiating a ‘Long-Range Attack Munition’ project “to rapidly develop and field a low-cost, air-launched family of loitering, swarming munitions” ahead of a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific that FD 2030 is anticipating.

“Loitering munitions” typically refer to unmanned aerial vehicles loaded with explosives that hover above a target area for an extended period of time before locking onto a target and dive-bombing it from above. 

“As demonstrated in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and presently in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, UAS platforms and loitering munitions routinely defeat armor and fighting positions with top-down attacks,” according to the Corps’ FD 2030 update. “To succeed in future conflict, the Marine Corps must find ways to operate in contested areas in a cost-effective, risk-worthy manner, while placing adversary capabilities at risk.” 

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Speaking to reporters at a media roundtable on Friday, Corps officials noted that the notional LRAM would provide Marine units with additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions as well as long-range strike capabilities, with the munition potentially configured to offer electronic warfare jamming, according to our colleagues at The War Zone. 

While loitering munitions themselves offer enhanced ISR and precision strike capabilities, the ability to swarm adds an additional layer of complexity for adversaries as multiple targets could potentially overwhelm even the most advanced integrated air defense system.

As previously mentioned by Berger during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee back in March, the LRAM will see employment in combat not just by the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and various H-1 rotary-wing aircraft like the AH-1Z attack and UH-1Y armed utility helicopters, but by cargo and transport aircraft like the MV-22 Opsrey, CH-53K King Stallion, and C-130 Hercules, “thereby significantly expanding our magazine depth,” as Berger put it at the time.

According to Brig. Gen. Stephen Lightfoot, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate at Headquarters Marine Corps Combat Development & Integration, the range of the LRAM will far outstrip the 8-kilometer reach of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile that currently sees action from the AH-1Z, making the latter less than ideal for a protracted conflict in the littorals of the Indo-Pacific, per DefeneScoop.

The LRAM “is a capability that brings hundreds of kilometers,” Lightfoot told reporters on Friday. “And that allows us to be able to use a current platform to be able to do things that we never thought that it would be able to do.”

Loitering munitions have been on the Corps’ wishlist for years. Indeed, the service has been eyeing the so-called Organic Precision Fire-Infantry(OPF-I) capability since 2020 to arm small and agile Marine units with loitering munitions that could swarm over a 20-kilometer range for up to an hour and a half. And according to Marine Corps Times, the service successfully conducted a live-fire test of a vehicle-mounted version, the Organic Precision Fire-Mounted (OPF-M), in 2021.

Speaking at the Modern Day Marine exposition in Washington, D.C. in May 2022, Berger stated unequivocally that “small, distributed, lethal teams that can employ organic [ISR], loitering munitions, and weapons like the Javelin, the Carl Gustaf, [are] much more lethal than larger formations that are using traditional force structures and concepts. And it’s not even close.”

Indeed, the FD 2030 update calls for the service to move quickly to “accelerate the procurement and training” of OPF-I and OPF-M systems, identifying options to do so no later than September of this year: “We are moving too slow in OPF.”

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