UAV Switchblade

UAV Switchblade

The Switchblade is a loitering munition developed by AeroVironment. It is designed as a “kamikaze,” being able to crash into its target with an explosive warhead to destroy it. The Switchblade is small enough to be carried in a backpack and can be launched from a variety of ground, maritime, and air platforms.

Design

The Switchblade 300 is designed as an expendable UAV to increase precision firepower for platoon-sized infantry units. It is 2 ft (610 mm) long and weighs 6 lb (2.7 kg) including the carrying case and launcher, making it small and light enough for one soldier to carry. The Switchblade is folded up inside a tube with wings unfolding once it gets airborne. It can be controlled up to 10 km (6.2 mi) but its small size limits its endurance to 10 minutes. This makes it unsuited for scouting roles, but it is useful for inexpensively engaging long-range targets and assisting in relieving units pinned down by enemy fire. The Switchblade uses a color camera and GPS locating to identify, track, and engage targets, as well as being able to be pre-programmed on a collision course. Its warhead has an explosive charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade to destroy light armored vehicles and personnel. If a situation causes a strike to be called off, the operator can call off the Switchblade and re-target it. The aircraft is propelled by an electric engine, so its small size and silent flight makes it extremely difficult to detect or try to intercept, enabling it to close in on a target at 85 knots (98 mph; 157 km/h). The Switchblade uses the same Ground Control Station (GCS) as other AeroVironment UAVs including the Wasp, RQ-11 Raven, and RQ-20 Puma. This creates commonality and the potential for teaming of longer-endurance small UAVs to recon for targets, then having the Switchblade attack once they are identified with the same controller.

U.S. Army regulations categorize the Switchblade as a missile rather than a drone, and the term “loitering munition” is preferred to describe it; unlike UAVs, it is not recoverable once launched. Its operation is similar to that of the wireless TOW missile, through a fly-by-radio frequency signal, the only difference being the TOW fires straight and doesn’t loiter, but both have the same operator-in-the-loop characteristics. The Switchblade uses daytime and infrared cameras, as well as an “aided target tracker” to lock on to stationary and moving targets. The warhead is specifically designed for controlled firepower to reduce collateral damage through a focused blast, having a forward-firing shotgun-blast effect rather than a 360-degree blast, throwing pellets on the same vector that the missile itself is traveling; it can also be fused to detonate at a predetermined height, which can be adjusted in-flight. When diving, the air vehicle gives the operator the opportunity to wave off until four seconds from impact, and the warhead can be detonated in-flight to destroy it. Being unique in its abilities, the Switchblade does not fit into several established doctrines, not being an armed reconnaissance vehicle dispatched by a platoon commander to scout over an area and destroy enemies, or an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform, as its cameras are for seeing targets instead of performing recon. There is also the question of whether small squads and platoons who lack high-level intelligence and communications should have the ability to fire missiles beyond ranges they are trying to influence.

Aside from being used against ground targets, SRC Inc. has written software to combine the Switchblade with sensors to be able to intercept hostile UAVs. The Switchblade is used alongside an existing counter-artillery radar and IED jamming system, all of which can be towed by Humvees. Interception of an enemy drone occurs in layers of defenses: if a drone gets through covering jet fighters or is too small to be targeted by them, it is picked up by the fire-finding radar; once detected, the jammer performs electronic warfare to break its data-link; if the drone resists EW, the Switchblade is launched to physically impact and destroy it.

On 28 April 2016, AeroVironment announced they had developed an upgrade for the Switchblade Tactical Missile system designated Block 10C. It incorporates a Digital Data Link (DDL) to provide a stable and secure encrypted communication link through more efficient use of existing frequency bands and significantly reduced likelihood of signal interception, as well as enables concurrent operation of multiple Switchblade systems in the same vicinity without signal conflict, gives opportunity to extend operational ranges using another DDL arbiter such as a different AeroVironment UAV, and facilitates sensor to shooter operations through automatic communication of mission plans from one AeroVironment UAS to a Switchblade. In October 2016, AeroVironment revealed the Multi-Pack Launcher (MPL), a system to carry and remotely launch several Switchblades. MPL comes in a standard 6-pack configuration weighing 160 lb (73 kg) fully loaded, though design is scalable from 2 to 20 rounds and enables rapid reloading of less than 30 seconds per round. The U.S. Army began deploying the MPL in early 2019 for base defense.

In October 2020, AeroVironment revealed they had teamed with Kratos Defense & Security Solutions to demonstrate a “high-speed, long-range unmanned combat air vehicle” that serves as a mothership to deliver Switchblade 300s in large numbers that cooperatively attack and overwhelm enemy defenses.

Switchblade 600

By late 2018, AeroVironment was working on developing an anti-armor version of the Switchblade that would be larger to carry a bigger munition. In March 2020, AeroVironment revealed it had flight tested a larger version of the Switchblade the previous year. The flights were described as “successful” for the larger design that “flies further and longer, and carries a much bigger mission effects or mission impact.” Other large loitering munitions have incorporated armor-piercing warheads, so the larger Switchblade could be fitted with an anti-tank warhead while having longer range and costing less than anti-tank missiles like the Javelin.

In October 2020, AeroVironment unveiled the Switchblade 600 loitering munition. The larger system weighs 50 lb (23 kg) but is still man-portable and can be set up in 10 minutes. It is designed to fly out to 40 km (25 mi) in 20 minutes, then loiter for another 20 minutes (giving it an 80 km (50 mi) total range) and attack at a 115 mph (185 km/h) dash speed, carrying an anti-armor warhead designed to neutralize armored vehicles. A touchscreen tablet-based fire control system can manually or autonomously control the munition, and it is secured through onboard encrypted data links and Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module GPS with a patented wave-off capability. The Switchblade 600 was developed to meet requirements in an Army development program called Single Multi-Mission Attack Missile. By the time of its unveiling it had undergone 60 test flights from ground launches against fixed and moving targets. Other methods could include a six-pack vehicle-mounted version and by air-launch.

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