The CL-901 is a real game-changer, not because it’s the first lethal, portable drone — the AeroVironment, US Switchblade takes that credit — but because it’s being produced by China for the export market.
This is a tactical weapon that can be carried by one soldier and launched from its tube from behind cover. The operator uses the video image beamed back by the drone to locate targets; it can cruise around for up to an hour at speeds of 40–80 mph at a few hundred feet. This long endurance, and the ability to find targets on its own, make it a loitering munition. Range is around nine miles. It is the smaller cousin of the 20lbs CH-901.
Once a target is located, the CL-901 locks on and dives on it in a Kamikaze-style attack.
Two key things to note about the CL-901. Unlike the Switchblade, it carries a warhead powerful enough to destroy light armoured vehicles — anything short of an M1 Abrams in fact. At six pounds, it’s a much bigger warhead than an RPG and will hit with much greater accuracy because it’s a guided weapon. That means that Bradleys, Strykers, Hummers and everything else are vulnerable to a portable long-range anti-armor weapon which, unllike rockets and missiles, has no firing signature. You will not see this coming or know where it was fired from.
Of course, it can also target soldiers on foot. Lethal radius is several metres, and it has high precision. Every time one is used there are likely to be casualties.
Secondly, there are no existing countermeasures. It is hard to detect – no IR signature, minimal radar signature, and fly low and near-silently. It cannot be engaged by any existing anti-aircraft systems. Sure, you could try and shoot it down with a machine gun, but even if you know one is coming and where from, you have about three seconds to hit a tiny,fast-moving target.
Jamming is one possible solution, but only if you know exactly how it is controlled. And modern battlefield comms are extremely hard to jam, and getting harder. Optical comms or other counter-countermeasures would make it unjammable.
Being on the export market — and made by a company previously sanctioned for selling to enemies of the US — means that American troops are likely to run to the CL-901 sooner rather than later. And being made by the Chinese, it may be cheap enough to be sold in large numbers (unlike, say, guided missiles). Meeting a few of these would be bad news; a lot of them could be a disaster.