Unmanned Aircraft: Bringing A Switchblade To A Knife Fight
In a recent story for Bloomberg Businessweek, Tony Capaccio, one of the best defense reporters in Washington, broke the story about the use by Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan of a Switchblade. As the capitalization of the word might indicate, the Switchblade to which I am referring is not the knife made famous in Hollywood B movies. Rather, it is an ingenious, miniature unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is also a weapon. According to Capaccio’s sources, just under a dozen Switchblades have been employed to date with great effect and SOF has asked for almost a dozen more. The fielding of Switchblade is the leading edge of what is likely to be the broader, even wholesale, weaponization of unmanned systems.
The public is much more familiar with the Reaper, the variant of the Predator UAV equipped with Hellfire missiles that has been employed with increasing frequency and great effect against many terrorist targets including, most recently, Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The Predator/Reaper UAV is a medium-altitude, long-endurance platform that can loiter for hours while tracking a target. It is controlled by operators who can be half a world away. The only UAV in the U.S. inventory bigger than the Predator/Reaper is the Global Hawk which is a large, high-altitude, long-endurance system that does not yet carry any weapons but rather an array of advanced sensors. Both the Predator/Reaper and the Global Hawk operate essentially as unmanned airplanes, taking off and landing at established airfields.
The Switchblade is at the other end of the spectrum. It is a very short-range, low-altitude, lightweight, tube-fired UAV that is carried and deployed by individual warfighters. As its name implies, the utility of Switchblade is in the close-in fight, particularly in rugged and complex environments when U.S. combatants need to engage hostile forces that are behind barriers, around the corner of a building or in a cave. In a knife fight the advantage goes to the combatant with the longer reach and the ability to seek out an opponent’s vulnerable points. These are the advantages Switchblade provides.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the 24 inch, six pound Switchblade is that its optical sensor and network allow an individual soldier to fly the mini-UAV just like its bigger, older brothers. Because Switchblade can loiter for a period of time, the user is able to observe potential targets and pick the optimum moment to strike. Currently, the Switchblade’s warhead is described as being like a shotgun blast, useful primarily against individual adversaries and soft targets. Switchblade is almost the ultimate precision-guided munition, allowing the user to see his potential target “through the tip of the bullet.”
The future for armed unmanned systems is enormous. Switchblade could be carried as a weapon on other, somewhat larger UAVs. The Pentagon has been investigating deploying several existing precision munitions on those same platforms. The Navy is looking at arming the unmanned surface and subsurface platforms under development as part of the Littoral Combat Ship’s anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare mission modules. In the near-future, the Army could deploy lethal mini-UAVs on its combat vehicles and armed helicopters, using them to counter anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired missiles. There is research being done on even smaller unmanned systems, the size of small birds and insects. The result could be the ultimate assassin bug.