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Kamikaze drones: Miniature munitions for dismounted troops

Aug. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Switchblade lethal miniature aerial munition system, above, is precise on target. But other companies' weapons may have more endurance.
The Switchblade lethal miniature aerial munition system, above, is precise on target. But other companies' weapons may have more endurance. (AeroVironment)
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Tube-fired “suicide” drones could be the new pocket artillery that will give dismounted troops a smaller footprint and a longer reach.

Developers of lethal miniature aerial munition systems think so as they gear up for a new Army program set for fiscal 2016.

A lightweight unmanned aerial system kitted with a 40mm warhead, the LMAMS offers the infantry the ability to reconnoiter an enemy target before delivering a quick, precision airstrike. Indeed, after the Army deployed 75 of these expendable systems to Afghanistan in late 2012, theater commanders quickly demanded more.

The current LMAMS solution is the 6-pound Switchblade, produced by AeroVironment. The main draw, an Army official said, is Switchblade’s precision and its ability to limit non-combatant casualties.

“Soldiers and leaders have readily embraced it as an invaluable tool,” the official said. “The ability to wave off a target after launch is unique to this weapon over almost all other weapons. Operators can abort a mission if the situation changes after launch, engage a secondary target or safely destroy it without inflicting casualties or collateral damage to property.”

The Army will be considering alternatives to Switchblade. Derek Lyons, LMAMS program manager at Prioria Robotics, hopes to emphasize the endurance of his company’s Maveric. An armed Switchblade can loiter in the air for 10 minutes, which does not give ground forces much time for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, he said. Maveric can stay aloft three times as long, he said.

“In a real deployed situation, when you’re taking enemy fire,” said Lyons, “you want to first get the bomb in the air and then do triage, get into a defensive posture, make sure the wounded are taken care of — and then you want to prosecute.”

Textron Defense Systems, meanwhile, is offering its new BattleHawk, which has as much endurance as Maveric and can be integrated with a ground sensor that would relay target data to BattleHawk.

“Ground forces are not ‘tied back’ to their command posts because of weapons such as BattleHawk,” said Henry Finneral, vice president of advanced weapons and sensors at Textron.

“Soldiers can now engage enemy targets quickly and without the large signature that artillery leaves behind,” Finneral said.

Lyons sees loitering munitions being used in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the U.S. might need a small, rapidly deployable expeditionary force.

“What if you have the ability to take two or three of our planes, throw them up in the air and do a hunter-killer arrangement?” he asked.

The Army has not decided how many more units it wants.

“It is a configuration well-suited to low-intensity conflict in the highlands,” said Steve Zaloga, an analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., suggesting LMAMS may be purchased in limited quantities, especially given the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“It is very expensive per mission compared to more conventional fire support methods.”

Lyons takes the long view.

“The Army wants more options down the road,” he said.

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