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Army Buying Kamikaze Drones

by John Reed on September 8, 2011

I’m pretty sure that I saw a model of this little guy at some trade show in the past year — it’s Aerovironment’s Switchblade UAV/smart bomb and it’s now being fielded.

Switchblade is basically a man-portable tactical UAV that, in addition to providing real-time aerial imagery to small units of soldiers, can be converted into bomb that the operator can fly into targets he identifies using the drones cameras. The drone is fired via a launch tube and then can either glide or use a quiet electric motor to fly (autonomously or controlled by a soldier) to its target area. Once there, it can beam back images of the area If the troops on the ground need to get rid of that target in a hurry, they arm the switchblade’s explosive charge and tell it to fly into the enemy.

The Army gave Aerovironment a $4.9 million contract for a small batch of the drones earlier this summer.

It will be interesting to see how this type of UAV tech evolves in the coming decade. Imagine a mass-produced force of relatively cheap yet powerful drones that can provide ISR and even carry their own weapons — like the current crop of MQ-9 Reapers do or how the Navy’s future UCLASS drones will — or simply serve as the weapon themselves. Could they overwhelm air defenses simply by the fact that they are expendable and mass produced — the ultimate guided missiles?

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Feral Jundi September 8, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Yeah, I have been writing about this concept for a bit and I call them Drone Archers. A small unit that has this kind of capability will need drone archers to make it happen. They will have the ability to take out targets that attack from extreme distances, they can mass micro-drones and swarm them on to multiple points for the most amount of damage possible, or they can use the drone purely for observational and tracking purposes. The point is, lethal micro-drones gives a small unit a lot of choices.

It can also save lives. I was reading about one instance where one unit had a non-lethal micro drone that they were flying above another unit's battle that was far away. They could see the enemy and the fight, but because there was no CAS in the area, that unit flying the drone could do nothing but observe and call it out enemy positions on the radio. With a lethal drone, they could have at least taken out key enemy positions. But how frustrating? Not to mention if that enemy actually killed our troops in such a battle? To make these micro drones lethal, would add a whole new element to the game out there.

I also think that lethal micro drones could help to shut down the effectiveness of hit and run tactics. When an insurgent ambushes, they dump a mag or two, or spray a drum of PK, and they run away. This harassing fire/ambush could happen alone, or happen right after an IED. Fast and furious, and then they bolt. That fire could also come from the mountains. With lethal micro drones, you could get those things up and above this attacking enemy, and then track or kill them, depending upon the wishes of that small unit. If they run, at least you have the ability to follow and then maneuver elements to block and/or destroy. The chaos of the fight will also help to mask the attack by drone until it is too late for the enemy to identify and hide.

The drone also comes from the sky, which gives the drone archer the high ground and a view that is unique. That drone archer can also prepare targeting for actual CAS coming inbound. There are many ideas that come to mind with these things.

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bart September 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm

I love your user name….Feral jundi.. lol

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Lance September 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Mini guided cruse missiles awesome.

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blight September 8, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Pushing fire support forward.

In WW1, fire support was dependent on timetable plans and sychronized clocks/pocket watches. By WW2, forward observers.

What's with the bottom right image? Looks like a ton of something going through that window…

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Stephen N Russell September 8, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Make warhead flexible for many missions, then U have a winner, Have Unit carry 20, 30 units into Combat & fire away.
Use sensors to direct artillary fire TOO while being charged as bomb.
Neat.

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SMSgt Mac September 8, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Anything to give small units in the field as much self-support capability as possible.

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Rob September 9, 2011 at 12:31 am

Attach grenades to it's belly. Or even just to drop GPS devices to paint targets

Put LRAD on a slightly larger version. Can disrupt large gatherings of enemy troops

Spread launchers on carriers & scouting boats. These would also be handy on any marine ground landing craft.

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Adam September 9, 2011 at 2:59 am

Jihad tactics, kafir-style!

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Tri-ring September 9, 2011 at 4:10 am

It will always be a cat and mouse game. Once these drones become more popular on the battle field the enemy will devise a way to block the radio frequency making the drones uncontrollable or crack the digital radio frequency and override command completely returning to square one.
The miniatures has a very limited range with a limited load so arming it for reuse is impractical.

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mrek February 2, 2012 at 6:56 pm

lol dude ever heard of optical fibre ? put a spool of it on the plane (don't worry it won't be heavy at all) and you can't jam it… in fact that's exactly the thing ised on spike ATGMs
ohh and duuudes – you should be affraid of these weapons not the so called 'terrorists'….
These days amateurs build FPV RC planes for like 600$ – how difficult would it be to put some C4 on them ? huh?

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David September 9, 2011 at 4:24 am

I think that arming drones is cheaper than crashing them.
Not to mention that such kamikadze drones could be easily salvaged/shot down when approaching target.

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Andrew Rowe September 9, 2011 at 6:11 am

A more accessible to the small unit NLOS? Automated surveillance of routes prone to IEDs would be ideal for such small drones. An alert to a monitoring station can lead to instant attack.

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blight September 9, 2011 at 8:20 am

A worthwhile study might be whether or not carrying these plus launchers would be more weight/bulk "cost-effective" than say, a 60mm mortar.

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Riceball September 9, 2011 at 10:44 am

But can a 60mm mortar spot your enemy for you? The idea behind this little bad boy is that you use it like a normal drone for the usual ISR work but if you happen to see some bad guys and you don't have the time to call in a fire mission or an air strike you just crash the drone into them and you're done.

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SJE September 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Agreed. As a weapons delivery platform, I'd favor the mortar. But why not have the drone with CAS capability, especially since the currrent doctrine is to use choppers or huge flying tanks. Small armed drones would be far more cost effective as an emergency solution than that.

At the same time, perhaps a mortar could be useful to launch smaller drones (or just a parachute with a camera).

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blight September 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm

They already had cameras for mortar rounds.

I'm fond of keeping drones as ISR assets, as they have excellent loiter time, and personally feel that wasting them as "kamikazes" not the way to use them. It looks like their launching setup is lighter than the 60mm, which is why I brought them up as a comparison.

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major.rod September 10, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Mortars are great. There are two 60mm per company. Not a platoon asset and not with the platoon if its operating separate from the company. At 3 lbs for the drone and another 3 for the controller, these are easily manpackable. 30 sec launch time, 1 – 2 mi range, 5-15 min endurance and a potential squad/vehicle asset this is a no brainer.

Don't see why anyone would be against them especially if they've ever been hit by fires from behind some rocks but don't know which rock specifically.

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Guest September 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Mortars cannot provide tactical surveilance nor can the be guided straight down on their targets.

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Musson September 9, 2011 at 8:46 am

I bet stuff like this keeps the Secret Service up at night.

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Mastro September 9, 2011 at 11:52 am

I hope they are planning for it- at least have RF jammers around open air speeches and such.

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SJE September 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Agreed. The most important point is to be LOOKING for stuff like this, up high, instead of just scanning the crowd.

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itfunk September 9, 2011 at 9:50 am

10 times more expensive than a 60mm mortar and you are blind after the shot – another still born concept.

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Mastro September 9, 2011 at 11:54 am

You can't shoot mortar rounds into an Afghan village when you don't know what's there- (unless you are a war criminal)

This is recon with a take out app.

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Flex September 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

Enemy ambushes will never be the same…

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Just Jay September 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm

This would do a number on my neighbor's barking dog. You know… hypothetically…

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Roy Smith September 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm

It reminds me of the Israeli Harpy UAV.

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crackedlenses September 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I was thinking the same thing; I wonder that the Israelis haven't fielded a suicide micro-drone on this scale so far….

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SJE September 9, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Israel is so much smaller, and heavily armed througout, that there is probably a mortar, artillery, or CAS option a few minutes and a radio call away. Unlike the boonies of Afghanistan.

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Chris Olden September 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm

They already have something similar that was recently revealed.

They fire camera-equipped missiles from an APC, you can see videos of hostile Palestinians getting hit by the missile… viewed from the camera on the missile. I think it's still on Youtube somewhere.

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Joe Schmoe September 12, 2011 at 4:23 am

They have had the Tamuz missile which is a semi-loitering self or manual guided missile with integrated cameras since they 80's. More recently they have the Spike ER missile which can do the same job.

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Snake Oil Baron September 9, 2011 at 9:26 pm

As manufacturing technology, material science and miniaturization bring down the cost and size of these devices there will no doubt be divergences between deluxe, multi-tooled drones and tiny guided flying grenades, with other niches in between explored. The way these things are used, what they are designed for and how much of each weapon/tool to acquire will probably require a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, there is little shortage of groups trying to attack civilians and western forces alike (for the simple pleasure of it) while hiding in mountains, forests and cities.

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Roland September 11, 2011 at 8:19 am

Put number of pounds on each boggy with thousands of units on the field could be a game changer.

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howard September 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm

someone used the name suicide micro drone.
sounds apt.
the photo supplied shows a shattering windshield in a car target.
leads me to see this as a switchblade cluster mini drone.
better way to fight the Taliban at 500 meters than
pitch .223 ammo into boulders.
smart unit commanders would have a few loitering
or launched when initial contact was made and perform
antipersonnel flyovers …cheaper than USbodies.
i like this idea!

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dbpollard September 13, 2011 at 1:37 am

This seems to be a near-perfect balance of stealth, mobility, firepower, and intelligence. Having one of these in the air would give units of infantry vital options. After collecting intelligence, if there isn't time to mount a ground maneuver, there's always the option of using the kamikaze feature. Also, being cheap, you wouldn't have to worry as much about losing one to enemy fire or a bombing run. The sheer mobility of these units would make it considerably easier to transport than say a predator drone. Multiple switchblades could be equipped to a unit, making a lethal, efficient force in most scenarios. Investing in these drones was a great move.

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Williams September 14, 2011 at 5:19 pm

If they can keep these below the price of, say, a Hellfire missile, then it sure seems like a winner to me. We've all seen videos of the Hellfire attacks, and if 1 or 2 insurgents justifies the expense of one of those, then providing a similar capability directly to the ground unit, and at a lower cost, seems like a no-brainer to me.

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Poor Old Norm February 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Lets test all of these ideas on the OWS encampments!

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Poor Old Norm February 2, 2012 at 2:14 pm

You could also mount speakers on them to play "invasion" sounds to confuse and demoralize then enemy. Wait – do you have to have morals to become de-moralized?

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