U.S. Army and Air Force special operations forces have used miniature kamikaze drones against Taliban targets and plan to renew the attacks next year, according to documents and an Army official.
The tube-launched Switchblade drone, made by Monrovia, California-based Aerovironment Inc., was secretly sent to Afghanistan for the first time last year. “Under a dozen” were fired, said Army Deputy Product Director William Nichols.
“It’s been used in Afghanistan by military personnel” and “shown to be effective,” Nichols said. The drone’s GPS guidance is made by Rockwell Collins Inc. and the warhead by Alliant Techsystems Inc.
Disclosure of the Switchblade’s use in Afghanistan highlights the Pentagon’s expanding range of missions for remotely piloted aircraft. The fleet also includes broad-area surveillance aircraft such as the Northrop Grumman Corp. Global Hawk, the missile-firing General Atomics Co. Predator and Reaper drones, and hand-launched short-range surveillance models, such as the Aerovironment Raven.
Nichols declined to describe the Switchblade’s targets. He said the drone is “designed for open threats, something that’s on top of a building but you can’t hit it” with regular artillery or mortars for fear of collateral damage. The drone is less than 24 inches long and weighs about six pounds.
“It’s a ‘flying shotgun,’” Nichols said, not a “hit-to-kill” weapon that explodes on impact.
“The operator has control of how far away from the target it goes off -- preselected distances,” he said in an interview Oct. 12 at the Association of the U.S. Army conference in Washington.
Into Shallow Caves
An Army fact sheet said the drone could be used against snipers, insurgents placing roadside bombs and those hiding on ridge lines, under rock overhangs and or in shallow caves.
Nichols said the first deployment laid the groundwork for another fielding early next year. He declined to identify what units requested the additional Switchblades.
Nichols said the Army is evaluating the results and may pursue a larger program, which would be open to competition.
Other potential targets are moving vehicles that can be tracked during the aircraft’s roughly 10 minutes of flight. It covers up to 20 kilometers, flying at about 500 feet. “It’s clearly not designed for armor,” he said.
Aerovironment announced at the AUSA convention a previous $4.9 million Army contract. It didn’t disclose the drone’s prior Afghanistan use.
The Combined Forces Special Operations Command in October 2010 requested an additional 11 drones for use by Army and Air Force commandos, saying the drone “enhances the small unit’s ability to quickly identify and precisely engage combatants in rugged terrain.”
Fielding additional so-called Lethal Miniature Aerial Munitions “will enhance operations designed to deny insurgents access to the Afghanistan population,” Army Special Forces Colonel Donald Bolduc wrote in his previously undisclosed October 2010 request.
Bolduc, in his “operational needs statement” obtained by Bloomberg News, said recent operations “have demonstrated the need for a lightweight, precision-guided aerial munitions system to locate and neutralize enemy positions.”
Bolduc said the system will be used by small units of Army and Air Force Special Operations Command personnel “operating in complex urban terrain.”
The small size allows an individual to “carry, launch, maneuver in all terrain, and engage stationary and fleeting targets in the open or defending positions within building, bunker or mountainous regions while minimizing collateral damage.”
“Such positions are extremely difficult to neutralize” and U.S. forces run a “high risk” of killing civilians with current weapons such as the new MK47 “advanced lightweight grenade launcher,” M3 Carl-Gustaf recoilless rifle and AT-4 rocket launcher, Bolduc wrote.
“Given rules of engagement and the constraints of urban terrain, a lethal capability must be precise in order to minimize collateral damage,” wrote Bolduc, who is now assistant deputy director for special operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.