US defence start-up Anduril has debuted what the company is calling the world’s first “reusable weapon” – an autonomous, ground-launched interceptor designed to kill uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles and some conventional aircraft.
Part aircraft, part guided munition, the Anduril’s Roadrunner is a small, twin-engined jet that launches vertically to fulfill air defence or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, but can also return to base and land vertically for refuelling and reuse on subsequent flights.
Anduril founder and chief executive Palmer Luckey unveiled the new concept on 30 November at the company’s headquarters in Costa Mesa, California.
“We’ve done a lot of tech development to make this possible and practical,” says Luckey.
The company has spent the past two years developing Roadrunner. Among the innovations that went into the design is an entirely new jet engine, which Anduril developed internally.
“It’s the most power-dense jet turbine engine in the world that’s ever been built… volumetrically speaking,” says Luckey. “The amount of thrust that it makes for the size of engine is truly unparalleled.”
Anduril is not sharing much about the engine specifications, or even the powerplant’s name. Luckey says the company decided to produce its own engine after not finding an existing product compatible with the cost, size and capability requirements for Roadrunner.
Standing at roughly 1.5m (5ft) tall when resting vertically, the Roadrunner is powered by two of the turbojet thrust vector engines, which run on standard jet fuel.
The vehicle can be configured with an ISR sensor package or a high-explosive proximity fuse warhead, which would detonate to destroy incoming threats, along with the Roadrunner, which is designated Roadrunner-M in its lethal configuration.
Luckey says the new vehicle is capable of reaching “high subsonic speeds” and “high-g” manoeuvring.
Anduril believes the Roadrunner concept can fill a niche that currently stands empty in military air defence – a platform capable of defending against numerically dense airborne threats, which can be cheaply and easily produced in large quantities.
“There just wasn’t a reliable capability available to bring these types of threats down,” says Anduril chief strategy officer Christian Brose.
Such threats could come in the form of cruise missiles or so-called “kamikaze drones”, which have been fired into Ukraine by Russia in the hundreds since Moscow invaded in 2022.
While currently deployed air defence systems such as Raytheon’s Patriot and NASAMS platforms can protect against such attacks, they fire sophisticated guided missiles with a high cost per shot and limited production capacity.
“You probably don’t want to shoot multimillion dollar weapons at drones that cost a few hundred thousand dollars,” says Brose.
Cheaper, simpler air defence systems can protect against commercial quadcopter drones and small UAVs, but are not effective against fast-moving cruise missiles and UAV-style munitions like the Iranian Shahed-136, dozens of which Russia has fired into Ukrainian cities during single attacks.
Ukraine shot down at least 40 such UAVs during a 25 November air raid in Kyiv.
With a current price point of “low six figures” per unit and the goal of driving costs even lower, Luckey says the Roadrunner is cheap enough to be deployed en masse, preserving high-end air defence platforms for more serious threats.
Anduril already has “dozens” of Roadrunners flying, according to Luckey, with an active assembly line at the company’s Costa Mesa headquarters preparing to churn out hundreds of the interceptors.
The company is under contract with an unnamed US government customer, who Luckey says has already “operationally assessed” Roadrunner. Competitor Raytheon is currently supplying the US Army with an expendable UAV interceptor called the Coyote, whose name Luckey admits influenced the moniker his company selected for Roadrunner.
When asked whether Anduril considers the Roadrunner a UAV or a precision munition, Luckey calls that a “philosophical question”, suggesting “reusable missile” as another alternative.
“It is something that’s never really quite existed before,” the CEO says. “It is a bit of a new category.”
Developing an entirely new class is in-line with Luckey’s goals for Anduril, which is taking on defence industry giants such as Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin in the space.
The billionaire founder is something of an iconoclast in the defence world, seeking to upend US defence production by importing design and manufacturing practices from Silicon Valley.
Luckey founded the virtual reality firm Oculus VR in 2012, which he sold to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion.
Part of Anduril’s strategy has been to avoid expensive, highly-specialised components and use existing technology wherever possible. Proprietary systems, such as the jet engines that power Roadrunner or the company’s marquee Latice autonomy software, will see use across the company’s portfolio.
Luckey calls this the “Taco Bell” approach to manufacturing, a nod to the American fast food chain known for tacos and burritos. Using a relatively small number of starting raw ingredients, Taco Bell is able to offer a large menu of products, he argues.
The former tech executive wants to use this approach to out-compete defence industry incumbents, who he argues have a traditional contracting approach based on lengthy timelines and expensive new-development approaches.
“I don’t really blame them so much as the government for creating an incentive structure that did not reward moving fast,” Luckey says.
“It did not reward cutting cost. It did not reward reusing building blocks, it actually rewarded the opposite,” he adds. “People were trying to figure out how they can build as many new things as possible, and never reuse anything.”
While Anduril is still in its first decade of existence, its founder’s goals are anything but modest.
“The goal of Anduril is to be one of the largest primes in the country,” Luckey says.