AeroVironment Switchblade

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Switchblade
Role Loitering Munition
Manufacturer AeroVironment
Introduction 2012
Status In service
Primary users United States Army
United States Marine Corps

The Switchblade is an loitering munition developed by AeroVironment. It is designed as a "kamikaze," being able to crash into its target with an explosive warhead to destroy it. The Switchblade is small enough to be carried in a backpack and can be launched from a variety of ground, maritime, and air platforms.[1]

Design[edit]

The Switchblade is designed as an expendable UAV to increase precision firepower for platoon-sized infantry units. It is 2 ft (610 mm) long and weighs 6 lb (2.7 kg) including the carrying case and launcher, making it small and light enough for one soldier to carry. The Switchblade is folded up inside a tube with wings unfolding once it gets airborne. It can be controlled up to 10 km (6.2 mi) but its small size limits its endurance to 10 minutes. This makes it unsuited for scouting roles, but it is useful for inexpensively engaging long-range targets and assisting in relieving units pinned down by enemy fire. The Switchblade uses a color camera and GPS locating to identify, track, and engage targets, as well as being able to be pre-programmed on a collision course. Its warhead has an explosive charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade to destroy light armored vehicles and personnel. If a situation causes a strike to be called off, the operator can call off the Switchblade and re-target it. The aircraft is propelled by an electric engine, so its small size and silent flight makes it extremely difficult to detect or try to intercept, enabling it to close in on a target at 85 knots (98 mph; 157 km/h). The Switchblade uses the same Ground Control Station (GCS) as other AeroVironment UAVs including the Wasp, RQ-11 Raven, and RQ-20 Puma. This creates commonality and the potential for teaming of longer-endurance small UAVs to recon for targets, then having the Switchblade attack once they are identified with the same controller.[2][3][4][5]

U.S. Army regulations categorize the Switchblade as a missile rather than a drone, and the term "loitering munition" is preferred to describe it; unlike UAVs, it is not recoverable once launched. Its operation is similar to that of the wireless TOW missile, through a fly-by-radio frequency signal, the only difference being the TOW fires straight and doesn't loiter, but both have the same operator-in-the-loop characteristics. The Switchblade uses daytime and infrared cameras, as well as an "aided target tracker" to lock on to stationary and moving targets. The warhead is specifically designed for controlled firepower to reduce collateral damage through a focused blast, having a forward-firing shotgun-blast effect rather than a 360-degree blast, throwing pellets on the same vector that the missile itself is traveling; it can also be fused to detonate at a predetermined height, which can be adjusted in-flight. When diving, the air vehicle gives the operator the opportunity to wave off until four seconds from impact, and the warhead can be detonated in-flight to destroy it. Being unique in its abilities, the Switchblade does not fit into several established doctrines, not being an armed reconnaissance vehicle dispatched by a platoon commander to scout over an area and destroy enemies, or an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform, as its cameras are for seeing targets instead of performing recon. There is also the question of whether small squads and platoons who lack high-level intelligence and communications should have the ability to fire missiles beyond ranges they are trying to influence.[6]

Aside from being used against ground targets, SRC Inc. has written software to combine the Switchblade with sensors to be able to intercept hostile UAVs. The Switchblade is used alongside an existing counter-artillery radar and IED jamming system, all of which can be towed by Humvees. Interception of an enemy drone occurs in layers of defenses: if a drone gets through covering jet fighters or is too small to be targeted by them, it is picked up by the fire-finding radar; once detected, the jammer performs electronic warfare to break its data-link; if the drone resists EW, the Switchblade is launched to physically impact and destroy it.[7]

On 28 April 2016, AeroVironment announced they had developed an upgrade for the Switchblade Tactical Missile system designated Block 10C. It incorporates a Digital Data Link (DDL) to provide a stable and secure encrypted communication link through more efficient use of existing frequency bands and significantly reduced likelihood of signal interception, as well as enables concurrent operation of multiple Switchblade systems in the same vicinity without signal conflict, gives opportunity to extend operational ranges using another DDL arbiter such as a different AeroVironment UAV, and facilitates sensor to shooter operations through automatic communication of mission plans from one AeroVironment UAS to a Switchblade.[8] In October 2016, AeroVironment revealed the Multi-Pack Launcher (MPL), a system to carry and remotely launch several Switchblades. MPL comes in a standard 6-pack configuration weighing 160 lb (73 kg) fully loaded, though design is scalable from 2 to 20 rounds and enables rapid reloading of less than 30 seconds per round.[9]

History[edit]

The Switchblade was originally conceived by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) before being picked up by the Army.[6] It was first unveiled in August 2011 to fill a gap U.S. troops were facing in Afghanistan. If insurgents ambushed a patrol, options available to push back the attacks were limited. Close air support takes time to arrive, is expensive to conduct, and risks collateral damage if in urban areas. If the troops are out of range of artillery support, guided missiles like the FGM-148 Javelin are available, but also very expensive. Another problem was that small man-portable UAVs like the Raven or Puma that can spot threats have no way of quickly engaging them because available weapons are too heavy for them to carry. The Switchblade combines the man-portability, low-cost, and recon ability of small UAVs with an explosive warhead to quickly locate and destroy enemy fighters, especially in dug-in positions like rooftops or ridge lines. On 29 July 2011, the U.S. Army awarded AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract for "rapid fielding" an unspecified number of Switchblades to forces in Afghanistan.[2][3][4] On 20 March 2012, the Army awarded a contract modification to the company of $5.1 million, totaling a $10 million order for Switchblade UAVs.[10]

In May 2012, the United States Marine Corps began the process of ordering the Switchblade loitering munition to enable an organic ability to engage targets like improvised explosive device (IED) emplacement teams. Usually when air support is called in, attackers slip away before a large UAV, attack helicopter, fighter-bomber, or quick reaction force can arrive on station. Marines sometimes couldn't get support due to other units getting mission priority. The Switchblade is small enough to fit in a Marine's ALICE pack and locks onto and tracks a target once selected.[11]

75 Switchblades were supplied to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2012. It was awaiting final approvals for use by late October, but several successful employments had occurred by January 2013. Although the military would not confirm details about its deployment, effectiveness, distribution, or tactical employment, commanders reported that it was "very effective." Shortly after, a joint urgent needs statement was requested by the Army theater commanders for more systems. The number requested was not specified, but was "dramatically more" than the 75 systems initially supplied and exceeded budget limitations. The Switchblade gained notoriety among soldiers using it and insurgents being targeted by it. The Army classifies it as a direct fire munition rather than a drone.[3][12] Soldiers embraced it as a valuable tool, especially to reduce collateral damage. Unlike most other weapons, the Switchblade can wave off or abort a mission if the situation changes after launch, allowing it to engage a secondary target or destroy itself without inflicting casualties or property damage;[13] the wave off capability was used over a dozen times to prevent civilian casualties that could have been caused had a man not been in the loop.[6]

On 28 August 2013, AeroVironment announced it had been awarded five contracts totaling $15.8 million to supply more Switchblade systems, ancillary equipment, and support to the Army.[14] One week later, The Pentagon gave the company a follow-on contract worth $6.6 million. On 5 September 2013, AeroVironment was awarded a $29 million contract modification to supply Switchblade munitions systems and associated hardware and support services, totaling $51.4 million worth in contracts announced over nine days.[15]

In April 2015, the Marines test-fired a Switchblade out of the back of an MV-22 Osprey. The drone was not equipped with a warhead, but was successfully released and accurately steered toward a target. The test showed that the Switchblade could be air-launched from the aircraft and add a remotely controlled, weaponized surveillance tool to the Osprey.[16] From its introduction to the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, over 4,000 Switchblades were deployed in Afghanistan.[17]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Aerovironment Switchblade - Aerovironment
  2. ^ a b U.S. Troops Will Soon Get Tiny Kamikaze Drone - Wired.com, 18 October 2011
  3. ^ a b c Tiny, Suicidal Drone/Missile Mashup Is Part of U.S.’ Afghanistan Arsenal - Wired.com, 12 March 2013
  4. ^ a b America's Kamikaze Drone Makes the Skies Way Less Friendly - Gizmodo.com, 5 September 2013
  5. ^ Kamikaze drones - the military robots set to self-destruct - Army-Technology.com, 6 August 2012[unreliable source?]
  6. ^ a b c 'Kamikaze drones' add a new layer of lethality to remote forces - C4ISRnet.com, 13 August 2015
  7. ^ New Weapons Spell Death For Drones; The Countermeasure Dance - Breakingdefense.com, 13 October 2014
  8. ^ AeroVironment begins production of Switchblade Tactical Missile System upgrade - Armyrecognition.com, 29 April 2016
  9. ^ AeroVironment Introduces New Remote-Controlled Multi-Pack Launcher for its Switchblade and Blackwing Tactical Missile Systems - Businesswire.com, 4 October 2016
  10. ^ U.S. Army Awards AeroVironment $5.1 Million Order for Switchblade - AeroVironment press release, 23 May 2012
  11. ^ Marine Corps pursues ‘kamikaze’ drone - MarineCorpstimes.com, 16 May 2012
  12. ^ U.S. Army Wants More Switchblades - Defensenews.com, 12 February 2013
  13. ^ Kamikaze drones: Miniature munitions for dismounted troops - Armytimes.com, 14 August 2013
  14. ^ AeroVironment wins US Army Switchblade award - Shephardmedia.com, 28 August 2013
  15. ^ AeroVironment Reaps $51.4 Million in Switchblade UAV Contracts in 9 Days - sUASNews.com, 9 September 2013
  16. ^ Marines Fire Switchblade Drone From Osprey in Test - Defensetech.org, 17 April 2015
  17. ^ Will 2016 be the Year of the Portable Lethal Drone? - Defensetech.org, 15 January 2016