Kamikazes

Imagine you are a squad leader on patrol in Afghanistan. Almost daily, while moving from compound to compound, you come under small arms fire from the Taliban or other insurgent forces. And every time, you react with the squad combat drill- you flop down, start returning fire, and try to maneuver either one of your fire teams, or more likely, one of the other squads of your platoon towards the enemy. A major problem is just figuring out exactly where the enemy is. It’s hard enough to spot someone hiding in the woodline 300 meters away. It is even harder to do when they are shooting at you.

The insurgents, having accomplished what they set out to do, namely just show that they can show up and shoot at the Americans, have broken contact and are melting away. Because they have to avoid getting shot or stumbling upon an IED, your troops have almost no chance of catching up with the insurgents.

Here’s a new tool that may soon help solve that problem.

Aerovironment has also been working on a project it calls “Switchblade” since at least 2007, which is to deliver a portable, tube-launched “loitering munition” of the sort now becoming trendy in some nations’ artillery units. The Switchblade, having been shot out of its disposable launch tube, pops out its wings and flies about on silent electric propulsion for as long as 15 minutes, scanning the terrain below with an electro-optical system.

As soon as its target is found, the silent Switchblade plunges out of the sky like a small robotic kamikaze, detonating its small warhead on impact to take out things as small as an individual human.

Micro UAVs such as the MQ-11 Raven have been popular with US troops for years now. I guess it only makes sense to have one with a warhead to prosecute targets of opportunity.  By acting like a UAV with sensors for the first part of its flight, one of these “kamikaze drones” can locate the enemy. But instead of just showing the enemy’s position, it can then simply fly toward them and detonate a warhead, solving your problem. And because you see video all the way to impact, it should be very accurate, able to minimize collateral damage and casualties, and provide good assessment of damage.

That’s not to say there aren’t technical and doctrinal challenges. First, you need to keep the system cheap and simple. In our current procurement environment, that’s a real challenge. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to spend $250,000 per weapon to blow up a goat herder with an AK. $10,000? Maybe. But I’d like to see something more around $1,000-$2000. Next, explosives safety rears its head. You need to design or adapt a warhead that is safe to handle, and use in harsh field conditions. Third, you need to address, both technically and doctrinally, the potential for loss of control of a drone with a live warhead while in flight. Does it self destruct? How do you make sure it doesn’t fall out of the sky? It is a sure bet that if it does, it will land on the least desirable spot possible (Murphy never sleeps!).

Still, adding a “killer app” to micro-UAVs is a logical progression and I think within a couple years, we’ll see something like this in the hands of our troops.