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.
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