Precision-Guided Munitions of the Future

And the Related Challenges to NATO

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, IT


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2018-2022)

 December 2019

‘War has always been a chameleon, it is ever-changing, adapting to new circumstances and camouflaging itself …’

Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831)


There has been a remarkable acceleration with the use of guided weapons since Operation Desert Storm, where unguided dumb bombs were the norm. After Operation Desert Storm, NATO members increased the use of Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and later in Afghanistan. More recently, the employment of PGMs dramatically increased in the most recent operation in Libya, where almost all NATO sorties were carried out with ’smart’ bombs, providing the Alliance with positive and significant results, in terms of accuracy and minimizing collateral damage.

The ‘why’ is relatively easy to understand. Most significant among the reasons were decreasing tolerances for collateral damage. Developments in PGM-enabling fields like aerodynamics, laser technology, and electronics have brought Air Power close to a ’surgical strike’ capability, which is deemed essential for modern warfare. In 2012, a study commissioned by the European Defence Agency (EDA) highlighted that ’the demand for precision has grown, both to increase the effect against the opponent and to avoid casualties among friendly forces and non-combatant third parties.’1

In addition, Operation Deliberate Force showed, for the first time, an attempt to provide a tactical effect of almost a one-to-one ratio of bombs dropped to targets destroyed (about 700 precision-guided bombs dropped on about 400 Bosnian Serb targets). This gave an additional economical aspect to the ’why’ of using precise weapons. ’The relationship of precision guided munitions to operational planning implies precision in terms of economy of force.’2

Today, despite a post-cold war economic situation where NATO member states have been forced to cut their military budgets, there has been further modernization in military technology, with nations focusing on things like protection, survivability, and precision-guided munitions. Indeed, multi-domain threats, which NATO is currently facing, dictate a priority to modernize weapons in precision, range and their ability to combat unconventional capabilities. Further, the need to fight in urban environments, to acquire targets far from the frontline, to utilize weapons in all weather conditions and in a joint effort, together with the already mentioned obligation to minimize collateral damage, are the common elements which characterize current PGMs and the platforms carrying them.3

Nevertheless, what political and military trends will drive the technology of precision weapons of the future? What will the PGMs of the future look like and what possible challenges regarding PGMs might NATO face fighting the next war?

Evolving Demands

General political trends and requirements are guiding technological developments of PGMs. Current political and geopolitical trends, such as uncertainty, financial constraints, manpower limitations, and no/low collateral damage requirements, are among the most important ones. The ’uncertainty’ of an adversary, its offensive and defensive capacity, and the unknown battlefield, are pushing PGM research towards the requirements of more flexibility and versatility, greater adaptability, as well as multi-role and multi-purpose solutions.

Limited budgets and cutbacks to military and non-military spending are forcing nations to consider the affordability of new systems, including Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and ‘Plug and Play’ solutions, and act as catalysts for interoperability, modularity and upgradability. In the same way, manpower constraints will likely require reduced manning solutions, such as automated surveillance and remotely controlled systems; these come with their own attendant costs.

PGMs of the Future

Future ’high-tech’ weapon systems are likely to have versatile characteristics and be employed across multiple domains and platforms. ’A conflict will not be limited to only one domain at any one time. On the contrary, actors will be likely to shift between domains, trying to leverage those that give them the most advantage or where they have superior capabilities.’4

Indeed, the next generation of PGMs will likely be carried and operated by both conventional manned platforms and autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These weapons will be required to have lethal and non-lethal capabilities and be able to operate in a physical environment while controlled in a virtual one. PGMs of the future might be released in cooperation with other platforms and weapon systems while retaining the possibility to be employed in individual modes; also their stand-off ranges will be extended and the manoeuvrability and precision enhanced (for employment within visual range and Close Air Support). Examples of this concept can be seen in new air-to-air missiles, including the AIM-120D Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missile, which features a much greater range than the already extended range version AIM-120C, and the multinational European missile METEOR, which has an operational range of more than 300 km.5 It is notable that the METEOR can also receive mid-course guidance updates from other aircraft and Command and Control (C2) nodes participating in the mission, providing increased degrees of manoeuvrability and precision.

Defence companies, in collaboration with nations, have already embarked on projects to design a new generation of PGMs. Raytheon Industry’s laser-guided version of its ’Excalibur Projectile’ (Excalibur S)6 and Israel Aerospace Industries ’fire and forget’ autonomous drone (HARPY NG)7 are recent examples. This new generation of weapons is increasingly precise, yet flexible. Follow-on ‘precision’ munitions, such as hypersonic weapons and powerful laser systems are already becoming a reality.

In a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed a successful test of a hypersonic cruise missile. Although an interview does not validate his claim, the recent US Air Force award of a 480 million dollar contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a second hypersonic weapon prototype shows that platforms and weapons, which can travel at least five times as fast as the speed of sound, are no longer a distant mirage.8

Network-Enabled Weapons

A PGM which can communicate with other systems is inherently flexible and encapsulates one of the future PGM key elements. ‘It is the ability to integrate and share information between platforms and systems in a timely manner that will give the Australian Defence Force a distinct edge,’ said the Australian Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews in 2017.

Network-Enabled Weapons (NEW) can fill existing gaps among the targeting cycle phases. The ability to find, track, and engage a target will be faster than before, as will be the damage assessment. This will help in de-conflicting operations, avoiding duplication of effort, reducing the potential for fratricide, and increasing the possibility of hitting the target in a timely manner.9 These weapons will have the capability to exchange information between themselves and the nodes linked to the network (e.g. delivery platforms, C2 centres, and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance [ISR]/satellite platforms). The result will be a weapon that collaboratively interfaces with the network, adjusts its trajectory in-flight to enhance accuracy, and provides real-time impact assessment. Information will be provided to the weapon by the most timely and accurate source available. Target coordinates will be updated and incorporated in real time into the guidance system, regardless of the weather conditions.10 With NEWs, the physical and digital worlds are linked and provide new opportunities for employment and probabilities for success.

’However, as the warfighter moves forward and develops these weapons, a proper balance between technology and creating effects on the battlespace must be maintained to prevent an over-reliance on technology.’11

Achilles Heel of Future PGMS

In recent years, NATO has benefitted from being technologically superior to many of its rivals. While not a given, in future scenarios, it is unlikely that an adversary will be able to compete with a NATO aircraft which will have the degree of stealth of an F-35. It is also unlikely that an adversary will have the ambition to challenge and defeat the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS). However, while the outcome of a conflict between a numerically superior force versus a technologically developed force could theoretically favour the smaller, more-advanced actor, such a result is not a foregone conclusion.12

In reality one of the Alliance’s greatest strengths, its technological progress, might be one of its greatest weakness. Any part of this future complex network, such as a sensor, a C2 facility, or a weapon system, could be neutralized or subverted by opposing forces. It is also possible that an opponent might disable one or more of the enabling United States (US) and/or European satellites, as well as crucial radio links and critical data-managing computers.

In this case, the opponent will most likely use the full range of ‘hybrid warfare tools’ such as conventional explosives, cut cables, jammed transmissions, ‘[…] and anything else that comes to mind’.’…from little green men to big green rockets over fake news and cyber and electronic attacks…’ as a speaker at the 2018 JAPCC conference mentioned.

If this happens, there might be no space-based ISR, no Global Positioning System (GPS) or Galileo positioning, no Link 16, no JCHAT (encrypted communication means), and limited computer-based mission planning. This could effectively pave the way for future NATO Air campaigns to be fought with 1980s technology, with severely ’maimed’ PGMs, wherein heavy losses and ’collateral’ casualties are to be expected.

Balance is the Solution

The new generation of airmen, who are skilled experts when training and operating in a perfect environment (precise Rules of Engagement, availability of GPS, Link 16 and C2 nodes), are not often trained in a technology-degraded environment, leading the training itself to a point of limited effectiveness.

Therefore, while moving forward with PGM development, NATO would be wise to implement exercises with new training events more tailored to a conflict in a ’degraded environment.’ In this realistic environment member nations would be forced to operate without Link 16 or GPS. A recent interview with General Paolo Ricco’, Commander of Italian Army Aviation advocates this thesis ’To increase our level of training […] we created a scenario which forces our crews to operate with minimized radio communications and without the use of GPS signals, forcing use of onboard backup systems […].’13 Indeed, to safeguard the Alliance’s military advantages, NATO must vigilantly prepare for the loss of some of the technology that helped make it so great.

On the other hand, it is possible to maintain advanced hardware and to fight with a technological advantage. To achieve this, NATO and nations must harden their own military relevant facilities and equipment against expected attacks by securing the links between the systems and the C2 nodes both in the air and on the ground, and by developing backup infrastructures. There is a persistent need to ensure effective and efficient resilience, not only of military forces but also of civilian infrastructure, by strengthening frameworks (physical and virtual) and systems against potential disruption or attack, including against kinetic and non-kinetic (cyber and electronic warfare) threats. The increased complexity of the decision-making process requires trustable information provided to commanders, at the strategical and tactical level.


The evolution of PGMs has provided NATO commanders with increased resilience and accuracy in air-to-ground. Before PGMs, air-to-ground weapons had a certain degree of inaccuracy, which forced Air Tasking Order (ATO) planners to compensate with a large number of aircraft carrying heavy bomb loads. Modern PGMs allow more precise planning to hit one target with one bomb. In addition, requirements such as fighting in an urban environment, striking a target deep in an enemy defence system, and deploying weapons in all weather conditions, define current and future PGM characteristics.

Political parameters provide guidelines for new military options offered by technological developments. Future capabilities are therefore driven by political trends such as financial constraints, manpower limitations, and no/low collateral damage requirements.

Among various weapons, the future is likely to include a network-enabled PGM which can communicate with the systems present on the battlefield. The exchange of information between delivery platforms, ISR/Satellite assets, and C2 structures, will be essential to accomplish the mission with accuracy and with precision.

However, while technology is a significant factor, it does not always guarantee success. Technological advantage is important, but it must be clear that what is an advantage today is the standard of tomorrow. Therefore, the Alliance must fight complacency and continue to innovate.

To maintain a certain degree of superiority over adversaries, NATO has to be able to fight a so-called ’old style’ conflict, especially if faced with the loss of the technological advantage. On the other hand, the Alliance has to defend this technological advantage by being prepared to keep its own systems and infrastructure intact and functional while rendering opposing systems and infrastructure inoperative.

Both solutions include positive and negative aspects. NATO, which has the ambitious task of being able to address the full spectrum of current and future challenges and threats from anywhere, and in every environment, must be able to train its personnel in all domains and in all conditions. Paradoxically, that means that the Alliance must stay at the forefront of technological innovations of PGMs while, at the same time, preparing to fight without them.

Taal, P., and Tsiamis, V., 2012. Roadmap and Implementation Plan on Precision Guided Ammunition. Available online at:, accessed Nov. 2018.
Sine, J., 2006. Defining the ‘Precision Weapon’ in Effects-Based Terms. Air & Space Power Journal article.
Dilanian, A., and Howard, M., 2018. Readiness for the 21st Century: An Interview with Gen. (ret.) David McKiernan. Available online at:, accessed Oct. 2018.
Kepe, M., et al., 2018. Exploring Europe’s capability requirements for 2035 and beyond. Available online at:—exploring-europe-s-capability-requirements-for-2035-and-beyond.pdf, accessed Oct. 2018.
Smith R., 2018. MBDA’s Meteor – The Most Advanced Beyond-visual-range Air-to-Air Missile in the World. Available online at:, accessed Jan. 2019.
Raytheon website. Excalibur Projectile. Available online at: Accessed Nov. 2018.
Israel Aerospace Industries Website. HARPHY NG. Available online at:, accessed Nov. 2018.
AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).
Koudelka, B., 2005. Network-enabled Precision Guided Munitions. Available online at:, accessed Oct. 2018.
Gen. HR McMaster, comments made at RUSI Land Warfare Conference, 2015.
Rossetti, L., 2019. Italian Army Aviation; Current Situation, Vision and Planned Developments to meet future NATO challenges.
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Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2018-2022)

Lieutenant Colonel Francesco Esposito joined the Italian Air Force in 1990, joining the Italian Air Force Academy in Pozzuoli (Italy). He was trained with the US Air Force SUNT program in Randolph AFB (TX) and subsequently graduated as a Tornado Navigator/Weapon System Operator in Cottesmore (UK) in 1996. As an aircrew with 156° Tornado Sqn, and as an instructor with 102º Tornado OCU Sqn he participated in the flying Operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Between 2008 and 2012, he served as ATO Coordinator and Chief Strike cell in the Combined Air Operation Centre in Uedem (Germany) contributing, as an ATO Coordinator, to the Operation Unified Protector in Libya. Currently, he serves as JAPCC Precision-Guided Munition Expert.

Information provided is current as of August 2021

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