A 5-pound missile the size of a loaf of French bread is being quietly tested in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles as the military searches for more deadly and far more precise robotic weapons for modern warfare.
In the next month or so, researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake expect to test a 2-foot-long Spike missile that is about a "quarter of the size of the next smallest on the planet," said Steve Felix, the missile project's manager.
Initially intended for use by ground troops against tanks, these small guided missiles have been reconfigured to launch from unmanned airplanes to destroy small vehicles. In the test, the missile will be fired from a remote-controlled helicopter and aimed at a moving pickup truck.
If the test is successful, it will mark another milestone in the development of weapons for unmanned aircraft, a nascent field reminiscent of the early days of flight nearly a century ago when propeller-driven biplanes were jury-rigged with machine guns.
In recent months, the U.S. has used Predator robotic planes equipped with video cameras to carry out search-and-destroy missions against Al Qaeda hide-outs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These attacks highlighted the rapidly changing face of warfare. But it was no big deal at China Lake, where weapons have been getting smaller, more precise and more powerful for a decade.
The new missiles being developed here are minuscule compared with the older, 100-pound Hellfire missiles in use today in Central Asia. A Predator, which can carry two or three Hellfires, would be able to hold as many as a dozen Spikes, extending its capabilities.
At the same time, experts say, smaller unmanned planes that could not carry weapons before could become deadly attack aircraft.
It is just these kinds of new weapons that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates emphasized last week as he outlined one of the most sweeping shifts in military spending priorities in decades. Among his priorities were buying 50 more Predator planes and putting more money into armed unmanned aircraft.
"We must re-balance this department's programs in order to institutionalize and enhance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead," Gates said.
Engineers at the sprawling China Lake complex, one of the nation's largest weapons test facilities with 6,600 workers, are hoping to be at the forefront.
"We're sort of at the same stage as we were in 1914 when we began to arm airplanes," said Steven Zaloga, a military analyst with the Teal Group Corp.
Pentagon officials say robotic planes have been particularly effective. As a result, demand for them has climbed sharply and Pentagon planners have rethought how they develop and deploy new weapon systems, analysts said.
That's because the threat to U.S. security isn't from superpower rivals with state-of-the-art fighter jets and nuclear submarines, but from international terrorists who are more likely to engage in smaller-scale, guerrilla-type warfare, they said.
In such warfare, robotic planes, originally intended to provide video images of potential threats, are becoming one of the more effective weapon delivery systems, they said.
The aircraft can circle over an area for extended periods -- up to 24 hours in some cases -- looking for elusive targets. Once a target is identified, remote operators can launch a missile to destroy it within minutes.
In the past, such missions often involved several aircraft and sometimes took hours or even days. That is not bad in traditional warfare but useless for fighting terrorists in pickup trucks.
In recent months, the Predator planes, made by Rancho Bernardo, Calif.-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., have been used to launch more than three dozen missile strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, military officials say.
The unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, are fitted with video cameras and other sensors to identify and track potential targets. They are remotely controlled by operators in an air-conditioned room thousands of miles from the battlefield on a base outside Las Vegas.
"Ten years ago, shooting a rocket out of a UAV was a stunt. Now it's a normal operating procedure," said John Pike, president of Globalsecurity .org, a website for military policy research.
With the demand for these planes growing, engineers at China Lake have increased their focus on developing weapons for pilotless planes and figuring out ways they can be used. So many of the engineers at China Lake, once the nation's bastion for developing bigger and deadlier bombs and missiles, are now looking at making weapons smaller, more precise and, in some cases, less destructive.
Last year the Navy began using a bomb developed at China Lake that it says "significantly reduced" so-called collateral damage -- unintended casualties. The bomb was meant for killing "extremely sensitive targets" without hurting people near them, China Lake officials said.
Details are still classified, but a 500-pound bomb that would have demolished an entire building was modified to kill certain targets while leaving others unhurt or with only slight injuries.
Engineers are hoping to apply the technology to the weapons being developed for UAVs. "It's one of our success stories," said Bland Burchett, project manager for the Low Collateral Damage Bomb, also know as Loco. "We added precision and reduced the collateral damage area significantly."
Elsewhere on the base 150 miles from Los Angeles, a new unmanned systems unit has been created to help troops quickly figure out ways that UAVs can be used to fight a battle or complete a mission.
The unit is populated by some of the youngest engineers at the base, many of them just out of college, reflecting the computer video-gaming influence. They tinker with circuit boards and video cameras that will be used on robotic planes, some barely bigger than a kite. One of their recent assignments was to improve the quality of images relayed by the planes so that Marines could identify potential targets more clearly.
In another building, a team of engineers has been working on making guided missiles smaller and cheaper, yet more precise and deadly.
The Spike, which uses commercially available computer chips and components, is expected to cost about $5,000 a pop, compared with more than $100,000 for the current generation of guided missiles.
"You can put them on smaller UAVs and thus have more of them," Pike said.
He noted that the fast-paced advances in computers and electronics have helped weapons developers. "That's why there have been such amazing outbursts of creativity in munitions."