Infantry: Building A Better Switchblade


October 24, 2020: In 2020 AeroVironment, the company that developed the unlikely, but popular, Switchblade loitering munition fifteen years ago, introduced a third version; Switchblade 600. While the original Switchblade weighed one kilogram (2.2 pounds), the latest Switchblade is ten times heavier at 23 kg (50 pounds), 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, although some modern tank designs include protection from top attack.

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 uses 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 used quickly.

The original Switchblade wis a small UAV fired, like all Switchblades, from its shipping container. Switchblade was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Switchblade completed development later in 2009 and was initially thought useful only for special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for troop use and since then has ordered a lot more.

While Switchblade was developed for the army, the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had with this system and ordered them 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. There have been several upgrades

The original Switchblade was a lightweight and expendable (used only once) UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that could also be equipped 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 Switchblade is 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 Switchblade can 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 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. 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.

Switchblade has been so successful that the army ordered several upgrades and this updated Switchblade was renamed Switchblade 300. The new version appeared in 2016. It is heavier (2.7 kg) with 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 proved useful. 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.

A recent example of this is a new shell for the 40mm grenade launchers carried on assault rifles. Called GLAUS (Grenade Launched Unmanned Aerial System) it looks like a 40mm grenade but is longer and heavier than the standard 40mm high-explosive shell and comes in two versions. One version launches a UAV with pop-out plastic wings, propeller and control surfaces. This version contains a video camera and communications link to the handheld controller used by the soldier who fired it. The comm-link is good for 2,000 meters and the UAV can stay in the air for 90 minutes. Each infantry fire team (4-5 troops) has one man designated a grenadier, with an M320 40mm grenade launcher attached under his assault rifle barrel. With the GLAUS UAV in the air, the team or squad (a larger unit with two fire teams) leader can scout the surrounding area from altitudes as high as 600 meters (2,000 feet).

Most small infantry UAVs, like the current 2 kg (5 pound) Raven, operate closer to the ground, usually at 100 or 200 meters altitude. Ravens are assigned to larger units like platoons (three squads) or companies (3-4 platoons). GLAUS is small enough for a patrol or small Special Forces team to carry with them and use far from friendly troops.

The second version of GLAUS is a small helicopter, with shorter endurance (about 30 minutes), but it can hover and is much more useful in built-up areas where you have to look into windows or alleys. If the troops find the enemy using GLAUS 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, you can open fire using your rifles.

GLAUS was developed by the army and was working as of 2020 but not in production yet. GLAUS is also not the first guided system built for the 40mm grenade launcher. In 2015 the Pike 40mm grenade was introduced by U.S. defense contractor Raytheon. By 2019 Pike was in production and had its first customer. There was no rush to buy Pike because of the cost. That may also hamper selling GLAUS to military organizations that have numerous essential needs and never enough money to get everything, or even most things.

The existing 40mm high explosive grenade cartridge is about 100mm (4 inches) long and weighs about 545 gr (19 ounces). The 40mm shell which leaves the launcher tube is about 43mm (1.9 inches) long, weighs about 250 gr (nine ounces) and can be fired out to about 400 meters. An experienced grenadier can only fire these grenades accurately at targets as far as 200 meters distant.

The Pike is a longer and heavier 40mm shell. Pike is 430mm (16.8 inches) long and weighs 770 gr (25.6 ounces). While the Pike warhead is about twice as powerful as the unguided 40mm grenade, most of the additional bulk and weight of the Pike is taken up by the laser detector in the nose, a microcomputer, four pop-out fins and electronic and mechanical components to operate the fins to guide the Pike to a target up to 2,000 meters away. The Pike homes in on laser light reflected from the target, which is “painted” by a laser designator that looks like a pistol. Normally Pike is operated by a two-man team. One man is the grenadier, firing the Pike from a common one round 40mm grenade launcher. The second man, the spotter, points the laser designator and holds it on the target until the Pike reaches it (after about 20 seconds). Actually, one person could operate the Pike because at max range Pike will be in flight for about 15 seconds before it can detect the laser light reflected off the target by the handheld laser designator. So one person could fire the Pike then pick up the laser designator, turn it on and designate the target.

Pike will land within five meters of the laser light reflected off the target. The warhead is more powerful than hand grenades so Pike will kill or injure anyone within ten meters (32 feet) of the aim point. Pike obtains its long range by using a small explosive charge to propel Pike about three meters into the air before a smokeless rocket motor takes over giving it the momentum needed to carry it at least 2,000 meters.

As of 2019, only one customer has been found for Pike. The Canadian Army bought some for its special operations troops. The major problem with Pike is the cost of each round. The standard 40mm grenade fired by infantry costs about $30 each. The Pike manufacturer (Raytheon) has not made public the cost of each round but, given the cost of other small laser-guided missiles (like the 70mm APKWS), each Pike probably costs at least $3,000 and probably two or three times that. It could be useful for special operations troops but for most infantry, there are plenty of other guided munitions available, many of them cheaper and more destructive than Pike.

Meanwhile, American troops already have a very lightweight UAV with Switchblade, but not as light and portable as GLAUS or Pike. There are others out there.

In 2019 an Israeli firm introduced the Firefly, a loitering munition UAV, which is portable enough for infantry to carry and continually reuse. There is also the option to replace one of the two batteries 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 would be most often 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 PIKE, GLAUS 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 GLAUS, Pike or Switchblade, it is probably cheaper. Add in the reusability and Firefly is definitely cheaper.




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