Special Operations: Perfecting Loitering Munitions

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May 23, 2021: In early 2021 U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) ordered $26 million worth of Switchblade 600 loitering munitions. That’s over a hundred Switchblade 600s, which will be delivered to the U.S. Navy SEALs by 2022 for use from the special boats that deliver SEALs to shore.

The U.S. Army also ordered $122 million worth of the smaller Switchblade 300, which is an upgraded version of the original Switchblade that was introduced in 2012.

AeroVironment, the company that developed the original, and very popular Switchblade in 2005 for the U.S. Army, had it ready for combat testing by 2009. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Switchblade completed development in 2009 and was initially thought useful only for special operations troops. Some were secretly sent to Afghanistan in 2009 so army Special Forces troops could test it a combat zone. That was very successful and in 2011 the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for troop use and since then has ordered several thousand. The army asked AeroVironment to develop a larger version of Switchblade to replace the original model. This was called Switchblade 300 and development was completed in 2017. By 2020 Switchblade 300 had replaced the original Switchblade and, as expected, was more capable and popular with users than the original Switchblade.

While the original Switchblade weighed one-kilogram (2.2 pounds), the upgraded version (Switchblade 300) weighs 2.7 kg (six pounds). All Switchblades are lightweight and expendable (used only once) UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that can be armed 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 original Switchblade was operated using the same controller as the larger (two kg) Raven UAV. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds).

Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the original Switchblade could stay in the air for 20-40 minutes, depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives. Switchblade can operate up to ten kilometers from the operator. The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus, Switchblade enabled 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 more quickly take out snipers or a few bad guys in a compound full of civilians.

While Switchblade was developed for the army, the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and SOCOM had with it and ordered some as well. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still used and thousands have been ordered and many of them used.

Switchblade was so successful that the army ordered several upgrades and the first updated Switchblade was renamed Switchblade 300. The new version appeared in 2016. While heavier, at 2.7 kg, it had 15 minutes endurance and a 10-kilometer range. The sensor has night vision and is stabilized. The 300 can lock onto a target and track it. The 300 comes with optional accessories, like a six-pack launcher that is used as part of base defense. This was first use for base protection in 2019 and performed as expected. One or more of these six packs are placed near the base perimeter and power is maintained with a solar panel. The base security commander can order a Switchblade to be launched from the six-pack and control it as it searches for a potential target. Switchblade 300 is also capable of being used from a helicopter or larger UAV and controlled from the helicopter or by the operator of the larger UAV (like a Reaper).

The U.S. Navy also requested a version of Switchblade, for reconnaissance only, that could be launched from ships or submerged (at periscope depth) submarines. In this case the sub would have a communications mast on the surface to receive data from what was called the Blackwing. This version is a little heavier, at 1.8 kg (four pounds). The size of the Blackwing is designed to fit into existing navy countermeasure launchers. Without a warhead Blackwing has endurance of about an hour and uses encrypted digital communications compatible with current navy systems. When released from a submarine countermeasures launcher, the Blackwing container pops to the surface and the Blackwing is ejected into flight like the other Switchblades. The U.S. Navy has bought at least 150 Blackwings, starting in 2016. Armed versions of Blackwing are available but these have shorter endurance. For subs, reconnaissance is the most important item.

Switchblade is not a unique concept, as these “loitering munitions” have been around for decades. What Switchblade provided was a design that met the needs of combat troops, especially special operations personnel. Since Switchblade entered service and its popularity became widely known, similar systems have appeared, trying to provide features that Switchblade lacked but the troops would appreciate.

The latest Switchblade 600 weighs 23 kg (50 pounds), ten times heavier than the original Switchblade and can stay in the air for 40 minutes and be controlled up to 80 kilometers from the operator. Top speed is 180 kilometers an hour and more economical cruise speed is closer to 150 kilometers an hour. The heavier warhead can destroy most tanks, as well as small boats and bunkers.

Switchblade 600 was requested by the U.S. Army for longer range surveillance missions and the option to hit specific small targets, like a building or enemy position. Unlike the earlier Switchblades, the 600 used a tablet controller with more options, including manipulating the more powerful vidcam carried. Video transmitted back to the operator can be saved and passed on. The operator also has a “wave off” feature in which a quick tap on the controller screen can cause the 600 to abort an attack and be available for another try. The 600 can also be programmed to carry out a mission without operator control. This means there is no control signal for enemy electronic warning systems to detect or jam. In this case when time is up the 600 self-destructs. The 600 can be carried into a remote area and be ready for use within ten minutes.

Switchblade was useful and popular with the troops but there were other systems developed that addressed some needs that Switchblade could not provide. These features included smaller size, reusability and hovering flight.

There were two different designs that provided smaller size, reusability and hovering flight. The first to appear were small UAVs that could be launched from the 40mm grenade launchers commonly used by most infantry units. Three different designs appeared in the last decade; GLAUS, Pike and Drone40. The latest, and most successful version of this concept was Drone40, that can be launched from the standard 40mm grenade launcher often carried by infantry units. Once launched, or thrown, like a grenade, Drone40 stays in the air by extending four quad-copter type propellers. Using a form of UAV flight most preferred by the infantry, Drone40 can pause to scrutinize areas or objects as well as enter structures, including caves. The hover ability is much more useful in built-up areas where you have to look into windows or alleys. If troops using a hovering UAV find the enemy, they can either call in an air or artillery strike or, if the enemy is close enough, use their grenade launcher to fire 40mm high-explosive grenades. If the enemy is really close and comes into view, they can open fire using their rifles.

The standard Drone40 weighs 190 grams (6.7 ounces) while the heaviest version weighs 300 grams (10.6 ounces). The heavier versions carry larger and heavier payloads like high-explosive or armor-piercing warheads. Heavier payload versions also carry a laser designator, electronic jammer or a smoke/flash grenade. The heavier models have less endurance but all can remain in action for at least 30 minutes. The non-explosive Drone40s can be recovered and reused after a battery recharge and resetting the quad-copter propellers inside the 40mm shell. Some repairs may be needed depending on where and how the Drone40 came down.

Drone40 was developed by an Australian firm that took note of several earlier 40mm UAVs and concentrated on characteristics that were most popular with the troops. Drone40 was put on sale in 2019, and by late 2020 British troops in Mali had received several hundred Done40s and wanted more. The basic Drone40 is the same size as the standard 40mm grenade and thus usable in all infantry 40mm grenade launchers. This Drone40 is equipped to take video or pictures and transmit them back to the operator. A small tablet like controller is used by the operator who must remain in sight of the Drone40 to control it and receive images at max range (20 kilometers). The image surveillance Drone40 can operate for up to 60 minutes if cruise speed is used. That speed can be nearly doubled to 1.2 kilometers a minute but that uses up more battery life. Drone40s are also capable of operating as a swarm in mass operations with explosive payloads. The success of Drone40 with the 300 British troops in Mali has generated interest in other countries looking for a portable, relatively inexpensive and reusable 40mm UAV.

Meanwhile an Israeli firm introduced Firefly in 2019. This was a loitering munition UAV that was portable enough for infantry to carry and continually reuse. It did not have to be launched from a 40mm grenade launcher, it was simply activated and thrown like a grenade. Firefly could also replace one of the two batteries carried with an explosive warhead and turn Firefly into a guided weapon. Another major advantage of Firefly is that it operates like a helicopter, not a fixed-wing aircraft. Being able to hover is a major advantage for loitering munitions used by infantry. What Firefly seems to have done is address all, or most, of the user criticisms of earlier lightweight loitering munition systems.

Firefly was developed by Rafael, the same firm that developed and builds the Spike family of ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Much of the tech in Firefly was based on what is already used in Spike systems. In particular, Firefly has a guidance system that can track and attack a moving target. This can be critical for infantry using such a weapon because these targets are elusive in the first place and, without a UAV, the infantry would not have spotted dangers like snipers or moving troops at all.

Firefly is a dual rotor miniature helicopter and those dual (on top of each other) rotors make it stable in winds that would make a similar-sized fixed-wing or quad-copter UAV unusable. The .4 kg (one pound) warhead replaces the second battery to halve the normal 30 minutes of flight time. The operator uses a small tablet device that is mostly a touch screen and a Firefly controller. Firefly can be controlled up to 500 meters in a built-up (or forested) area or up to 1,500 meters in line-of-sight (nothing between Firefly and operator) mode. Firefly returns to the operator if the control signal is lost. The operator can press an icon on the screen to get Firefly to return immediately, abort an attack or carry out a high speed (19 meters/62 feet a second) attack on a target. The target can be moving, as in a sniper changing firing positions out of sight of the operator. This is accomplished using the ability of the Firefly guidance system to remember the shape of a target and follow it. The Firefly warhead will most often be used against troublesome targets like snipers or hidden machine-guns. Even without the warhead, Firefly would be able to locate such lethal adversaries and enable the infantry to avoid them. Firefly can also be launched and operated from a moving vehicle.

The big advantage Firefly has over 40mm UAVs and Switchblade is reusability. Carry one Firefly and just use it as a UAV for a dozen or more times. Because of the relative simplicity of the Firefly compared to 40mm UAVS or Switchblade, it is cheaper, especially because of the reusability.

 


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