Electronic Weapons: Security For Switchblade


May 18, 2018: Over the last decade the American military has been upgrading the security of their communications. These upgrades are especially critical for weapons and aircraft that are controlled via wireless signals. A recent example was the U.S. Army decision to upgrade all its older Switchblade UAVs to the Block 10C standard. This involves upgrading the communications (between operator and UAV) to use an encrypted digital link. This makes it nearly impossible for enemy forces to eavesdrop or hijack Switchblade communications. Block 10C Switchblade was introduced in 2016 but there were still older models without the encrypted data link and with Russian EW (Electronic Warfare) forces so active in Syria and elsewhere it became important to use only Block 10C Switchblades. Moreover, Switchblade is frequently used by special operations troops where secure communications and reliability are particularly important

Since 2014, when most American and NATO forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, most of the U.S. troops in combat are SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commandos and Special Forces in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. These troops require some special equipment and one of the most used items is Switchblade, which is a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives and also used as a weapon. 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 controller as the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV.

A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds). Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan, where it was first tested, and with SOCOM in all sorts of places, they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still widely used with over 5,000 produced so far. Switchblade first saw combat in 2009 and each one costs about $80,000. For SOCOM forces, who often travel light into enemy territory, hauling along a Switchblade or two can be crucial for completing a mission not to mention a lifesaver in emergencies. Users regarded Switchblade as a micro-UAV/cruise missile. It was both aerial surveillance and a weapon. More importantly, it could be carried and used by individual troops. Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade can stay in the air for 10-15 minutes (depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives) and remain under operator control up to ten kilometers away. 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 and be flown by its controller or autonomously via GPS coordinates. 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.

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 more than a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for troop use and every year since 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 was using Switchblade as well.

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.




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