Shadow Hawk Munition portends a new era of warfare


May 7, 2012

To put the size of the Shadow Hawk air-glide armament in perspective, the RQ-7 is just 11.8 ft (3.6 m) long and has a take-off weight of just  208kg

To put the size of the Shadow Hawk air-glide armament in perspective, the RQ-7 is just 11.8 ft (3.6 m) long and has a take-off weight of just 208kg

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Lockheed Martin's new Shadow Hawk weapon is deceptively small considering the influence it will likely have on warfare from this point forward. The era of unmanned warfare is about to go to a whole new level. The Shadow Hawk is an 11-pound class, 2.75-inch (7 cm) diameter, 27-inch (68 cm) long drop-glide munition released a mile or more above the target by the equally diminutive unmanned RQ-7B. It may not seem like a major leap forward in weapons technology but it most certainly is, because the Shadow Hawk munition now arms an entire fleet of RQ-7s for the US Marines and Army that could previously only be used for reconnaissance, and it does so with a much smaller and cheaper weapon.

The Oxford Companion to Military History rates the development of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) as "perhaps the most significant factor in air warfare since aircraft first began to carry bombs."

The significance of this breakthrough is that precision-guided bombs can now be dropped at a lower cost than ever before - by using a far-more-plentiful, smaller, unmanned "delivery vehicle" and a much smaller and cheaper weapon.

The Shadow Hawk is guided to its target by a semi-active laser seeker of astonishing accuracy. In the first public test, the Shadow Hawk was dropped by an RQ-7 from a mile high and it hit the target at a speed of 500 km/h (311 mph) just EIGHT INCHES (20 cm) from dead center. In real life, not to put too graphic a point on it, it would then explode.

The major leap forward in weapons technology enabled by the Shadow Hawk is that it now arms the significantly-sized next level of small UAS systems that could previously only be used for reconnaissance and surveillance.

"Equipped with Shadow Hawk and the UAS's electro-optical and infrared cameras, a Shadow UAS can now offer battlefield commanders timely detection of threat activities, including fleeting and time-sensitive threats, along with a quick-strike capability," said Glenn Kuller, director of advanced programs in Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control business.

The Shadow RQ-7B which was used to deliver the weapon in the initial tests, is not very large, being just 11.8 ft. (3.6 m) long with a wingspan of 20.4 ft (6.2 m) with a maximum gross take-off weight of 460 lb (208kg).

That leaves a payload capacity of just 45 kg (99 lb) and given that the RQ-7 probably has Israeli Aircraft Industries infrared camera, daytime TV camera (with a selectable near-infrared filter), laser pointer, and a 2 kW GEC/Plessey 28 volt DC generator and you can see why the it hasn't been armed prior to now.

Indeed, the competition for a spot inside the 45 kg is increasingly fierce - one very useful module which also takes up precious payload capacity is a communications relay package. This turns the RQ-7B into a relay station and enables commanders and the RQ-7 operators to talk with troops in locations that would otherwise be dead to radio traffic - including in urban guerrilla conditions.

Despite lashings of carbon fiber and lots of tricks (the wings contain the fuel), there simply hasn't been enough room before now for a small armament.

In August 2011, the U.S. Marine Corps was given official clearance to experiment with armed RQ-7s. The aim of the exercise was to deliver lethal force with surgical precision as opportunities present themselves, without calling for something a lot more expensive, and at the same time perhaps missing the opportunity by having to wait for the jet to be available and then having to wait for it to fly to the fight.

Then there's the cost. Calling in a manned aircraft is outrageously expensive, and the munitions such aircraft are likely to carry are several orders of magnitude more expensive than the Shadow Hawk.

Then there are the delivery costs - one of the fighters operating in Afghanistan and Iraq costs between US$10,000 - $25,000 per flight hour.

The RQ-7 is one of the most common unmanned systems in theater with over 100 in service and another 300 + ordered and the new capability afforded by the Shadow Hawk munition will be the lowest cost solution in the entire U.S airborne arsenal.

To stand back a moment, man has created some fearsome weapons in his time, but this to me, is one of the cleverest combinations of technologies I've ever seen.

Although just 200 kg, the RQ-7 can loiter over the battlespace for nine hours at a time, providing high definition video and infrared vision of the entire area, act as a relay station for all communications, and now it can deliver a potent lethal force when called upon ... all at cents in the dollar compared with manned aircraft.

The RQ-7 also takes pilots out of harms way, another of the key objectives set by the American military a decade ago. With so many RQ-7s available and coming, the small unmanned aircraft will fly countless missions that would previously have required a pilot going into a high threat situation.

Finally, its accuracy is so good that it will be vitally important in avoiding civilian casualties in future conflicts.

"As the mission of the Shadow UAS continues to evolve, it will need capability that can immediately neutralize threats detected and designated by the Shadow's sensor package, with minimum impact to the aircraft's endurance," said Glenn Kuller, director of advanced programs in Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control business. "With precision strike accuracy, the Shadow Hawk is an ideal solution in urban environments where low collateral damage is essential."

About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, (Australia's largest Telco), (Australia's largest employment site),,, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon

The move from blanket city-wide bombings (WW2) to more and more limited and concise targeting is just more to the good.

Yes, if we could do away with it all, best.

But since that's not going to happen anytime soon, the fact that we try to get more and more precise is actually humane.

Other "groups" are fine with blowing up anyone they can; our military efforts move more and more toward only eliminating the specific target.

Small bomb, small and inexpensive delivery - nice!


Clearly the success of drones is as follows, infinite time in the air followed by lots of ammunition, hence the missiles will shrink and drones will likely begin to carry dozens of smaller nano bombs from which we will remain safe.,,,i think


Keep going guys. The game is miniaturization. Make the plane smaller and the bomb smaller. Glide bombs need only be the size of a 50 caliber bullet. A small plane could carry hundreds of smaller bombs.

Red Baker

How long before unmanned drones become part of our police arsenal? A couple of cheap drones on permanent station for instant observation of crimes and traffic. No longer would you need high speed chases. Just follow the miscreants from the air and block their path ahead.

Nick Hill

I agree with Red. The interim will likely see pods of Switchblade-like devices hanging off of the wings of these wee UAVs.

Alan Belardinelli

A vicious short lived war is far more humane to the civilian population than this non-sense of trying to separate the combatants from their civilian support. Destruction of vital infrastrucure and industrial capability irregardless of the death of civilian support would end this slow bleed in endless low intensity warfare with decades of our commitment to an insane preservation of the very society that encouraged their government into initiating hostilities to begin with either through general religious fervor, militaristic nationalism or just plain ignorance of the very real consequences to them and their families. Destroy the society completely as the U.S. and our allies did in Japan and Germany and rebuild it into a less aggressive nation that can reenter the community as civilized peers.

Michael Gene

@nick... or how about a Police drone that can fire a car-killing electrical "package" (missile) at a dangerous hi-speed getaway vehicle that causes the engine to stall? A small drone could be flown in to close proximity (feet) and then disable the vehicle.

Matt Rings

I wonder why nobody sees this as a threat to the sovereignty of free nations. Anything that can be remote controlled can be compromised. It's not that easy to compromise a pilot. Weaponized drones is scary, but when they become miniaturized it gets medieval. Keep your eyes on the prize.


One word - SKYNET


@Michael, while you have a valid point for past theatre of war victories, I believe the idea here is more of a "cut off the head and the rest of the body dies". Previous warfare was done on a battleground of mass resource usage and bloodshed. When weaker opponent finally exhausts enough resources and their ability to fight is minimized, they give up. The military and government leaders typically having gone through no real hardships or losses themselves.

Imagine, if you would, taking the warfare straight to those who percipitated it in the first place. After quickly and effectively wiping out the first round of leaders, how enthusiastic are the next set going to be to put their heads on the chopping block?

If there has to be warfare, I am a proponent of educational and specific warfare, which this will provide.

Gregg Frank

I think this is another piece of the droid war puzzle.

Patrick Stapleton

It probably won't come to be part of any police arsenal any time soon. It's not flexible enough to justify the cost for civilian law enforcement. It has two roles: surveillance and destruction of targets. Plus, surveillance equipment is getting a lot of attention by the courts these days: Red-light cameras are already coming under fire under the Fourth Amendment in court, GPS tagging by the FBI is under court scrutiny now, and other passive surveillance techniques are pretty closely monitored. These are all far cheaper than drones. Why would any department buy something that's a lawsuit waiting to happen, and will probably be very closely regulated in the near future? Plus, remember that the cost of this technology is dropping. How long before civilians are able to build their own drones? Then you'll have the truly paranoid building and arming their own UAV's with EMP weapons to take out the "gummint" drones, etc. Escalation by certain sectors of the civilian population is going to happen.


But... but... but... How will anyone make enough money off of a war if we make the weapons so inexpensive? The full evolution of this approach combining miniaturization, accuracy, and autonomy, is a smart mine. Spread the little critters around the countryside and they wait for targets. No need to have long loiter times. They could sit passively till targets come within range, then activate to fly/swim/crawl to targets as they present themselves. Targeting could be autonomous, but the decision to commit would come from the States... or maybe that's where the targets will be. I get confused sometimes.


The smaller this kind of weapon system gets scarier it gets too. It may come to a point where political assassinations will look like car bombs or even accidents where the gas tank explode.


As a UAS operator (unmanned pilot) of the Shadow and other systems, I can shed light to the questions of when Police and other Agencies might get these systems. The FAA currently stands between local police users and the systems current fielded. As soon as the National Airspace is opened up to allow Unmanned Aircraft Systems to operate, there will be flood of local users all across the country. With regard to a "Skynet takeover" or a "threat to sovereign nations", just because there is not a pilot in the aircraft does not mean that one is not controlling it. The current systems are not controlled solely by computers like you see in the movies. There is a trainined professional bound by the rules of engagement and oversight of leadership at he controls. Just like in manned aviation. All the same rules are followed. Unmanned Aircraft Systems are allready becomming widely used in maritime surveilance as well as surveilance of things like pipelines as well as meteorological missions. Its only a matter of time before News stations and local authorities are using them in every day life. Some colleges have ventured off into the Unmanned world and are offering training and degrees.

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