Air Support in a Backpack: The Switchblade
In March 2022, it was reported that the United States was sending over some Switchblades to Ukraine. That includes the latest, most advanced version - the Switchblade 600.
The fighting has highlighted the effectiveness of Javelins and other man-portable air defense systems or MANPADs.
The fighting has also highlighted the power of cheap armed drones. I have done a video about the Turkish TB-2s and the disruptive threat they pose to aerial defenses.
But what about something that sort of sits in between? What America is sending is a special breed. A drone-missile that you can carry around for instant, accurate air support on demand.
In this little follow up video, I want to talk about the Switchblade, made by Virginia-based AeroVironment - a little missile with drone-ish characteristics that you can put into your backpack.
How about we start at the very beginning? AeroVironment was founded in 1971 by Paul MacCready. The company started off doing meteorological studies.
They first emerged into the public spotlight for building human-powered aircraft - winning a 50,000 pound Kremer prize in the process.
The 1979 Gossamer Albatross for instance would fly over the English Channel, pretty impressive. This won them their second Kremer prize and 100,000 pounds. Henry Kremer, the prize's sponsor, had thought it would take another two decades to achieve this, but it was achieved just a few years later.
The company adapted its design to use solar energy. The Solar Challenger was very light - just 200 pounds - and first flew in May 1980. It had no battery, a rather inefficient solar panel array, and a mere 2-horsepower engine.
MacReady and his team did it at the time as a publicity stunt to get the Reagan Administration to further support the solar energy field. But the company continues to build solar-powered aircraft designed to stay in the air for extended periods of time like its sunglider.
In 1986 or 1987, the company developed the Pointer - the first hand-launched unmanned reconnaissance aircraft system. They put an electric motor on a lightweight Kevlar airframe and attached a small CCD camera to the nose. Video was transmitted back to the ground station via fiber optic or radio.
The Army and Marine Corps purchased about 50 of these in 1988 at a cost of about $100,000 for 2 planes and a ground station. A relatively cheap price that basically makes it expendable.
The Marines used three systems during the Gulf War and their performance impressed the troops. They described it as like having a 500-foot tall soldier with binoculars. They also brought the Pointer to Afghanistan after 9/11 and then in Iraq in 2003.
The Pointer worked great. But there were limitations. The CCD camera was fixed, so you had to point the plane directly at its target. Ergo the name. The lack of a on-board system for system orientation made this doubly hard.
And it was large - with a ten foot wingspan. You had to carry it in two to three containers so it wasn't all that portable.
Furthermore, it did not maneuver so well in high winds, so its usage was limited to daytime, fair-weather missions. The company incorporated this feedback and sought a follow up.
In 2001, AeroVironment introduced a follow-up to the Pointer, the RQ-11 Raven. This one was a huge success - with over 20,000 delivered - and it is used around the world. The whole system costs about $250,000 - with each little plane costing about $35,000.
It is a small thing, with a 1.37 meter wingspan and weighing about 4 pounds. You carry it in two suitcases and control it with something that kind of looks like a video game controller.
Operators loved the Raven because it provided an extra set of eyes. You can send it out to learn about the surrounding area - like a hill or a nearby building - without having to risk someone's life by sending out a patrol instead.
A 2007 notice said that up until then the Raven flew nearly 80,000 sorties in Iraq, logging some 65,800 flight hours. One operator said:
> “If you’ve remapped the route with a Raven, it helps you know ... it gives you a better chance that you won’t run into an ambush or confront an IED.”
It wasn't perfect, however. Like the Pointer, its camera couldn't move or pan around. AeroVironment would eventually release a Raven with a rotating camera - the Raven Gimbal. And it also made a lot of sound, which alerted people to its presence.
Lastly, some soldiers wished it had some form of attack capability. Another operator said, "To be truthful, the guys kid me sometimes about flying my little plane. Now if the Raven could blow something up ..."
I think now would be a good time to pause and discuss close air support. These are air missions conducted in close proximity to friendly forces as they are conducting ground operations.
This is in contrast to air superiority and air interdiction roles. Air superiority would be something like eliminating any threat to air operations like anti-aircraft weapons or enemy planes. Air interdiction would be targeting command nodes or positioned enemy forces.
Because friendlies are in close proximity, close air support is a delicate thing. The ideal air support craft needs to be very responsive to rapidly changing conditions on the ground, needs to loiter in the area for an extended period of time, and has to accurately deliver its weapons.
You can chose a variety of different craft to deliver this support. Helicopters showed a lot of success during Vietnam in providing security during mobile troop movements. But they are also vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles.
So in recent close air support situations, the army extensively called upon the A-10.
In use since 1976, the A-10 was specifically designed for attacking armored vehicles, tanks, and other enemy ground forces in a support role.
The plane moves well at low speeds and altitudes, can loiter around for several hours without refueling, and is armored against small arms fire. It is also faster than a helicopter, which makes it responsive to requests.
In terms of offense, it boasts a large 30 millimeter Gatling gun on its nose that fires a lot of depleted uranium rounds. Its loud firing is apparently a morale-booster.
The A-10 is also cheaper to operate than an F-15 and F-16, at about $20,000 per flying hour, with the F-16 coming in at $23,000 and the F-15 at $40,000.
During its time in Iraq, over half of all close air support missions were done with the A-10. The plane has also been heavily used against the Islamic State.
Just three months after its entry into that fight, the Air Force remarked that it is the second-most heavily used aircraft - having flown 11% of total sorties up until then.
The plane is scheduled for future retirement, with its role assumed to be filled by the F-35. But there's been pushback over that.
For one thing, buying new F-35s would cost a great deal more as compared to simply upgrading the A-10. And while the F-35 is multi-purpose, it would be hard-pressed to fill the A-10's niche of providing low-altitude, wide-ranging, loitering support.
On the other hand, the aging A-10 plane is at increasing risk from MANPADs. And its cannon - while loud and impressive - hasn’t actually been all that effective. There’s also the risk of civilian casualties. Recent wars have seen a lot of urban warfare, and you can't make the big gun go brr there.
Teams fighting such wars need their air support to be more precise. But they still have to have that loitering capability and fast responsiveness to the rapidly developing needs on the battleground.
Developing the Switchblade
In 2004, the Army asked AeroVironment to develop a small reconnaissance UAV that you can fire from a howitzer. The company developed a prototype - referred to as a Gun-Launched, Unmanned Air Vehicle.
This product did not quite pan out, but the learnings from that experience eventually led to the company to work on a tube-launched, armed UAV. In 2006, the company came out with the first version of the Switchblade, the Block 0.
The Air Force loved it so much that they funded the development of the Block 1. The Block 1 underwent a variety of tests over the next few years. Then in 2010, the US Army became aware of this and provided the funding for upgrading it to the Block 10.
This version is similar to the Switchblade 300, the version that was eventually first sent to US soldiers in 2012.
The Switchblade 300
Some have referred to the Switchblade as a kamikaze drone. But the Army classifies it as a type of loitering munitions - not a drone - because they see it as a weapons system. They've been universally pretty clear in their messaging that this is not a drone.
You launch it from a tube. Once launched, you can control it from the ground as it cruises around at about 60 miles an hour. It has the ability to stay in the air for about 10-30 minutes - operated manually or via pre-programming. Once a target has been identified, the Switchblade dive-bombs down to its target at a hundred miles an hour and blows it up.
Despite how fast it goes, the operator still has to option to pull up on the joystick and "wave off" the attack with up to four seconds before detonation.
Colloquially, it has been described as like a flying shotgun, because it is able to front-fire pellets with its 40 millimeter grenade-like warhead.
It's small - weighing about 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms) and is less than 61 centimeters (24 inches) long. It can be carried in a rucksack with its wings folded up and launched in minutes.
One thing however, is that once it is fired, it cannot be recovered. So troops might use it to take out one or two important positions. For instance, a sniper, mortar or a small vehicle up ahead. But when faced with bigger groups of resistance, you might still need to call in an A-10 or whatever else they got planned out for the future.
Regardless, the Switchblade has been able to fill certain close air support roles on its own. The speed with which the Army has adopted the Switchblade is telling. In late 2012, soldiers in Afghanistan got about 75 Switchblades. They found it very effective and soon asked for more.
By September 2013 AeroVironment had three contracts worth $50 million for more Switchblades. Later on, it was announced that over 4,000 Switchblades were deployed over the Americans’ time in Afghanistan. Hundreds were later sent to help fight the Islamic State.
AeroVironment seems to know a hit when they see one so they’ve been expanding the product into a whole range of items. They debuted a larger, heavier version - the 600 - with the ability to attack armored vehicles.
They have also been trying new ways to launch these. AeroVironment sells a Multi-Pack Launcher that fires six Switchblades all at once. And at an investor conference, they demoed a launcher that fires up to twenty of them.
And they have successfully fired and guided one from a MV-22 Osprey. It opens up the possibility of a far more precisely guided missile - one with a human in the loop at all times.
There is also an unarmed version, the Blackwing, which can be fired out of an underwater delivery canister mounted on a submarine. Submarines have recently undergone extensive transformations to accommodate UAV launches and more. This is in line with that roadmap.
In May 2021, the US Navy committed to buying 120 of these from AeroVironment - the sole supplier.
I have seen some comments floating around about wanting to keep these products a secret so that the enemy doesn't know about them. Yet AeroVironment has posted a lot of information and data-sheets on their website for anyone to download.
They have a YouTube channel with 6,000 subscribers and lots of slick videos on them. And a very vibrant Facebook Page with plenty of posts. They are *definitely* trying to get the word out on their products with the goal of selling these to foreign armies down the line.
Despite their efforts, the Switchblade has gone relatively under the radar - overshadowed by bigger things like the Predator and the TB-2.
But the Ukrainian conflict has certainly put this thing on the map, and despite heavy competition I think AeroVironment is going to be finding a whole bunch of new customers soon. And the US military is going to learn a whole lot about what exactly these things can do.
It is interesting to look back on this company's history - with its early products focused on gimmick airplanes and the like - and see where it is now.
American troops can use the Switchblade for air support in just ten minutes. Good for them. But we definitely need to start thinking about how to defend against them as well.
Because at some point, troops are going to come across a Switchblade-like thing used by the other side.
The same technologies that make the Switchblade possible are freely available to other armies too. China for instance is a commercial drone leader. Their CH-901 - also a tube launched loitering munitions - is of particular interest.
Newly adopted technologies require adjustments in how teams fight battles. Such adjustments are often learned only after substantial human losses - like with the machine gun and World War I.
I still don't have an answer to these air defense drone questions, but I will keep on exploring the space looking for them.