Californian company AeroVironment
AeroVironment’s existing SwitchBlade loitering missile is one of the U.S. military’s best-kept secrets. It’s a five-pound, tube-launched weapon that can locate, identify, and destroy a target from several miles away while the operator remains securely behind cover, watching via video feed. Thousands have been used, often against “high-value targets” (aka insurgent leadership) but few details have ever been released. The small warhead delivers a focused blast of shrapnel which can take out a group of individuals or a pickup truck; it can dive vertically to hit targets in trenches or foxholes. But the generally secret nature of the operations it is used in means there are more pictures circulating even of the shadowy six-bladed Hellfire R9X ‘Ninja missile’ than SwitchBlade.
The existing SwitchBlade now becomes the SwitchBlade 300, with the unveiling of the bigger SwitchBlade 600. This is a 50-pound weapon, launched from a ground vehicle, drone or helicopter, with a forty-minute flight time and a top speed of 115 mph. It can travel 50 miles to the target area and the operator can find targets without help from any other surveillance or reconnaissance assets. The warhead is five times the size of the original, armor-piercing to take out light armored vehicles or hardened structures, with a fragmentation effect for personnel.
It also has an updated control system.
“For Switchblade 600 we are introducing a new tablet-based Fire Control System with tap-to-target guidance, the option to pilot the air vehicle manually or autonomously, and a built-in mission planner and training simulator that are all fully integrated into an intuitive platform,” says Wahid Nawabi, AeroVironment’s President & CEO.
There is plenty of competition in this field, especially from Israel, a leader in drone warfare. UVision already produce a range of loitering munitions; the 30-pound Hero-120 corresponds roughly to the Switchblade 600, and the new Hero-20 rivals the Switchblade 300. The Turkish military has acquired several types of kamikaze drone, including the Kargu which can attack in swarms, while Polish company ST has had several export successes with its Warmate. Other loitering weapons, many made locally, are a growing feature of the current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Garage-built versions made by the Houthis with Iranian assistance have proved effective against Saudi Arabia.
Nawabi believes that AeroVironment’s technology is well ahead of the competition. Their loitering missiles include sophisticated features like optical navigation so they can operate when GPS is jammed or spoofed, gimballed visible-light and infra-red sensors, and military-grade encryption. The terminal guidance system can lock on to a target and follow even if it is evading at high speed.
Jamming is clearly a major threat, and many armies now field countermeasures to block communications between operator and drone or loitering missile. Nawabi says they are incorporating on-board AI and machine learning to counter this challenge.
“Greater levels of autonomy, delivered through these advanced technologies, will minimize the ability of electronic countermeasures to affect our loitering missile systems, while also expanding mission capabilities,” says Nawabi.
He says that future versions may “select targets autonomously with minimal support by human-in-the-loop” – so the operator may do little more than confirm a target located by the smart weapon, requiring only a brief burst of communication rather than continuous control.
Nawabi says that a number of DoD customers are lined up for the SwitchBlade 600, although the only one they can discuss at present is the U.S. Marine Corps. The weapon will probably be deployed in a vehicle-mounted multipack, giving it a new capability to find and destroy targets far beyond line of sight. Testing is at an advanced stage and the first deliveries are expected in 2021. Meanwhile deliveries of the SwitchBlade 300 continue under a recent $76 million U.S. Army contract, part of the largest loitering missile order ever placed.
Loitering missiles are potentially far cheaper and more capable than legacy systems. At the launch event AeroVironment hinted at other new developments in the pipeline, and the company clearly has big plans to grow their family of loitering missiles. In the process, they may just change the face of warfare and make shooting over line-of-sight distances as rare as bayonet fighting.