US Military Bringing a Switchblade to A Gun FightSep 13, 2012 14:41 UTC by Defense Industry Daily staff
In late June 2011, the US Army gave Aerovironment a contract to begin fielding Switchblade UAV. Aerovironment’s new tube-launched, man-portable UAV will work for surveillance, and transmits live color video. It also functions as a kamikaze missile, however, which can be armed and locked on target by operator control. This makes it extremely useful against dug-in or fortified infantry positions, enemy missile teams, mortars, etc. After a set of 2011 trials, the US Marines added a contract of their own, even as the US Army moved to deploy the system to Afghanistan by summer 2012.
The US military’s interest is understandable. One of the key lessons of Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon involved infantry use of guided anti-tank weapons as immediately-available precision artillery fire. Iran’s Hezbollah legionnaires frequently used Russia’s 1960s era 9K11/AT-3 missile designs for this purpose, while Israeli forces used the higher-tech Spike. Similar trends have been observed among American and British forces in Afghanistan, who use expensive $75,000 – 100,000 per shot Javelin missiles. With Switchblade, the US military has taken a step toward fielding a lower cost platoon level surveillance/strike weapon. The economics involved, and the clear global trend at work, mean that the US Army won’t be alone.
AeroVironment’s Switchblade is carried and operated by a single soldier. The UAV, launcher and transport bag together weigh about 5.5 pounds / 2.5 kg.
It uses the same Ground Control Station as the firm’s RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma, and Wasp UAVs, and uses its video camera and GPS to find targets.
Switchblade has about 10 minutes of flight time at 55 – 85 knots, with an effective range of up to 10 km/ 6 miles. It can be a loitering munition within those limits, and the operator can halt or resume its attack sequence.
Contracts & Key Events
Interested vendors are being invited to present on Oct 16/12 in Huntsville, AL, and Switchblade is already very close to those specifications. Its range is already at the specification, but it needs 50% more flight time. Day/night stabilized sensors are getting much smaller, too, which means all the pieces of the puzzle could be in place well before 2014.
The real question may be “why gold plate the specifications in the first place?” GPS guidance would allow night use against designated targets, and the growing presence of mini-UAVs in the US Army means that loitering and searching for/ geo-locating targets can easily be done by other assets. Rather than adding cost and development time by trying to make LMAMS a day/night UAV too, why not just field something that’s much cheaper and more portable than a $100,000 Javelin missile, can take a geo-location feed, and relies on standard video + GPS to find and kill targets that are currently taking Javelin shots? Then add new capabilities as they emerge.
The US military rarely does things this way, and budget realities will eat their operational capabilities alive unless they begin changing their mindset. RFIs can indeed help by giving the military a better sense of what’s out there. Having said that, “see-more” specs have a nasty habit of persisting past their point of usefulness. The best place to fight gold-plating is the beginning of the process, via sharp distinctions between mandatory vs. wish-list (“objective”) requirements. FBO #W31P4Q-12-R-0157 | WIRED Danger Room.
May 23/12: AeroVironment, Inc. announces a $5.1 million contract finalization from US Army PEO MS, CCWS, bringing the June 2011 contract’s full value to $10 million. The modification includes engineering services, operational Switchblade systems and operator training. AeroVironment will work with ATK, its munition subcontractor, to produce and deliver the systems.
May 16/12: USMC Buy. The Marines join the Army in buying Switchblade UAVs. Aerovironment’s Steve Gitlin:
“Think about it – pairing switchblade aerial munitions with a Raven, Wasp or Puma [mini-UAV] – a small team with those tools can know what is going on around them within about 15 klicks. Once they identify a threat, Switchblade lets them engage that threat immediately.”
Unless that threat is something like a tank, of course. Gannett’s Marine Corps Times.
May 5/12: The Fort Riley Post reports that training is underway, but suggests that hitting the target is going to take a fair bit of practice:
“As the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, prepares for deployment later in the spring… 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment; 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment; and the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment have been training on the new back-pack sized lethal miniature aerial munitions system, or LMAMS, – the Switchblade… Normally used by Special Forces units, the 4th IBCT is one of only two brigades being fielded this weapons system for its deployment this year… “it’s a complicated system on the cutting edge of technology, and it requires a lot of training to get the effects on target,” said Maj. Robert Brown, assistant project manager, LMAMS, PEO Missiles and Space… “We not only are giving the Soldiers simulator time, but also a lot of flying time on the ranges of Fort Riley. They will also receive more training in theater.”
Aug 16/11: USMC. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory has bought 5 Switchblade systems from Aerovironment for testing, and plans to conduct some demonstrations. There’s no official program yet, just initial interest. UK Umanned Vehicles.
June 2011: The US Army’s Close Combat Weapons Systems (CCWS), PEO MS gave Aerovironment a $4.9 million contract to provide engineering support and operational Switchblade UAVs for rapid fielding with the US Army.
Fall 2010: The prototype Switchblade system receives Safety Confirmation, and undergoes Military Utility Assessment with the U.S. Army. Source.