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.
The warhead is made by ATK, and is roughly equal to a 40mm grenade.
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
Unless otherwise noted, all contracts are placed by US Army Contracting Command (Missile) at Redstone Arsenal, AL, to Aerovironment Inc. in Monrovia, CA.
April 25/18: Block 10C upgrade orders The US Army has contracted AeroVironment to provide upgraded hardware and parts for the Switchblade precision strike munition. Valued at $44.6 million, the agreement will task the firm, based out of Simi Valley, California, with providing Block10C inert training vehicles and Block10C all up rounds, multi pack launchers and modular battery payloads to the service, with a scheduled completion date set for September 19, 2019. AeroVironment first rolled out its Block 10C upgrades—which give soldiers more stable and secure encrypted communications—on the Switchblade tactical missile system after the Army awarded the company a $22.8 million contract in September 2016. Capable of being stored and carried in a soldier’s backpack, the system has a strike range of more than six miles with a flight endurance of around 15 minutes, and can strike targets beyond line of sight, meaning the munition can maneuver on targets beyond covered positions or around mountain ridges.
Sept 5/13: US Army. A $29 million firm-fixed-price contract modification for more Switchblade Agile Munitions Systems and support. An AeroVironment release places the recent total at $36.7 million, implying an Aug 20/13 contract size of $1.1 million.
Discussions with Aerovironment confirm that all of these awards are separate from the set announced on Aug 28/13, raising the total to 8 awards worth $52.5 million. AeroVironment is investigating whether or not the 3 recent awards are related to the March 2013 notice of intent, or if those additional orders are still pending.
Work will be performed in Simi Valley, CA. The contract’s importance can be inferred from the fact that the Army is using FY 2013 operations and maintenance funds, rather than procurement funds, to pay for it. This was a sole-source contract, with 1 bid solicited and 1 received (W31P4Q-12-C-0263, PO 0015). Sources: Pentagon | AeroVironment, Sept 10/13 release.
Sept 4/13: US Army. A $6.6 million firm-fixed-price contract modification for more Switchblade Agile Munitions Systems and support.
Work will be performed in Simi Valley, CA. The contract’s importance can be inferred from the fact that the Army is using FY 2013 operations and maintenance funds, rather than procurement funds, to pay for it. This was a sole-source contract, with 1 bid solicited and 1 received (W31P4Q-12-C-0263, PO 0014).
Aug 28/13: US Army option. AeroVironment discusses an August 30/12 Switchblade contract, which hadn’t been announced by the company or the Pentagon until now. It has now grown to $15.8 million under 5 successive orders for Switchblade tactical missile systems, ancillary equipment and support. The release cites a February 2013 news article that quoted the REF’s director as saying, “Theater came in and said, ‘We need dramatically more'” Switchblade systems than the 75 supplied in late 2012. Hence the continued orders.
The US Army’s Close Combat Weapons Systems, PEO Missiles and Space (PEO MS) manages this contract, in support of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF). Subsequent discussion with AeroVironment confirms that this is the W31P4Q-12-C-0263 contract vehicle.
The firm says that these awards aren’t related to FBO.gov’s March 2013 announcement of intent to award a new sole source contract for Switchblade systems – a date that doesn’t fit the timeline they gave, anyway. Despite their caveat, and despite growing competition from sources like Textron (Battlehawk) and Prioria (Maveric), AeroVironment seems to have a strong position in this niche. Sources: AeroVironment Aug 28/13 release.
New Army REF contracts
FY 2010 – 2012
Aug 15/12: LMAMS. An FBO.gov pre-solicitation for the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) is looking for a 5 pound killer UAV with 15-30 minute flight time and 5-6 mile range. The UAV will have day/ night capabilities and image stabilization, with the ability to automatically track a designated target. A secure digital data link will connect the UAV to its soldier, and once the UAV is sent in to kill, the laser height-of-burst sensor will automatically detonate the warhead at the right time. They want to kill troops 4 meters away in the open, but not kill people 10 meters away. The UAV will also be usable against light vehicles, via direct hits. The Army wants TRL 7 or higher by FY 2014-16, which means a prototype that has been tested in an operationally realistic environment.
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?” Simple 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. Sources: FBO #W31P4Q-12-R-0157 | WIRED Danger Room.
May 23/12: US Army option. 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: Training. 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.”
Dec 22/11: Sub launch. Aviation Week reports that Raytheon has received a contract to deploy the Switchblade UAV from a submarine during RIMPAC 2012 exercises, using the launch vehicle it developed under the Submarine Over-The-Horizon Organic Capabilities (SOTHOC) program.
Switchblade’s super-short range and 40mm warhead punch make actual deployment from a $2.5 billion capital asset with limited stowage space sound ridiculous. On the other hand, it makes for an easy concept demonstration. Sources: Aviation Week Ares, “U.S. Navy Subs to Deploy Switchblade UAV”.
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. Sources: AeroVironment Sept 1/11 release.
US Army buy
Fall 2010: The prototype Switchblade system receives Safety Confirmation, and undergoes Military Utility Assessment with the US Army. Source.
* AeroVironment – UAS Advanced Development: Switchblade
* Prioria – Maveric UAS. Clever tube-launched UAV with bendable wings is used by Canada’s military, and they’re developing a companion Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) version with the usual 40mm grenade on board.
* Ars Technica (Aug 15/13) – BattleHawk wants to be your own personal kamikaze robot
* Gannett’s Navy Times (Aug 14/13) – Kamikaze drones: Miniature munitions for dismounted troops. Cites 75 deployed to Afghanistan in late 2012.
* Defense Tech (Sept 19/12) – Textron’s Remote-Controlled Flying Bomb. Their Battlehawk mini-UAV has a camera in the nose, and packs a 40mm grenade cartridge.