Artillery: Small But Versatile


June 8, 2017: Since few American troops are in combat at the moment, and most of them are SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commandos and Special Forces in Iraq and Syria, their requests for special equipment are promptly taken care of. Earlier in 2017 SOCOM requested a rush shipment of 350 LMAMS (Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System) UAVs. LMAMS is the much delayed second generation of the existing Switchblade system. The original Switchblade was a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same gear the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV employs. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds). Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Swithblade was a very popular combat tool. The LMAMS order was delivered by May and promptly put to work watching the enemy and attacking them if needed. LMAMS is the second generation of what was originally called Switchblade, which is still widely used (with over 4,000 produced) since it first saw combat in 2009.

The United States sent some Switchblade UAV systems to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. That was unexpected because initially, Switchblade was mainly used largely by Special Forces and other special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblade UAVs for troop use and every year more had to be ordered because regular infantry units in combat got their hands on it and demanded more. By 2012 the U.S. Marine Corps were using Switchblade as well.

Users regarded Switchblade as a micro-UAV/cruise missile. It was both aerial surveillance and a weapon. More importantly it could be carried by individual troops;. Switchblade has been so successful that the army passed on user comments to the manufacturer and asked for a Switchblade 2.0. That was delayed by budget cuts and technical problems. Meanwhile improvements were made to Switchblade.

The new version was called LMAMS and it was ambitious. It was heavier (up to 2.2 kg/5 pounds) with up to 30 minutes endurance and a 9 kilometer range. The sensor must have night vision and be stabilized. It must also be able to lock onto a target and track it. The warhead had to be capable of disabling light vehicles as well as being harmless against people 10 meters (31 feet) from detonation but lethal within 4 meters (12.4 feet). All this was possible with current technology and the Switchblade manufacturer (who also makes the Raven) had a head start but not a lock because there is nothing exotic about the basic tech. The trick was getting it all into one package and working.

The complete LMAMS system weighs about 8 kg (17 pounds). Budget cuts delayed LMAMS but Switchblade continues to be in big demand. In 2015 the marines successfully tested using Switchblade from an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. This showed that Switchblade could be used from helicopters and other slow moving aircraft wanting to know what’s on the other side of the hill while avoiding getting shot at by any bad guys who are there.

Switchblade can also be launched from the existing 70mm rocket tubes used on army helicopters. Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade can stay in the air for 20-40 minutes (depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives). The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus, Switchblade enables ground troops to get at an enemy taking cover in a hard to see location. Technically a guided missile, the use of Switchblade as a reconnaissance tool encouraged developers to refer to it as a UAV. But because of the warhead option, and its slow speed, Switchblade also functions like a rather small cruise missile. The troops were particularly enthusiastic about the armed version because it allowed them to easily take out snipers or a few bad guys in a compound full of civilians. It was these sort of situations that apparently led to the request for LMAMS.

Others noticed Switchblade. In 2015 An Israeli firm has introduced a new loitering UAV, portable enough (weighing 3 kg/6.6 pounds) for the infantry to carry and use. The Hero 30 has 30 minutes endurance and has a small warhead that can use used to turn it into a weapon if the onboard vidcam indicates a target that has to be taken care of immediately. Otherwise it can be landed and reused. Hero 30 is based on the older Hero 400 which weighs 40 kg and has an 8 kg (18 pound) warhead. This UAV has a four hour endurance and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. But Israel noticed that the United States was having lot of success (and demand from SOCOM and infantry units) for the similar (to Hero 30) Switchblade.