Could small, loitering munitions be the future of close air support (CAS)? The U.S. military has been experimenting with the notion for some time.
The first-ever loitering munition to enter the U.S. military’s arsenal was the AeroVironment Switchblade in 2012. The Switchblade is a small and light unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can be launched from a tube and can accomplish a variety of tasks. It has the capability of conducting short-range tactical reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Furthermore, it can act as a loitering munition—essentially a kamikaze drone—by locking onto a target and destroying it. Although the Switchblade homes in on the target, its operator can abort and redirect it if needed (if civilians suddenly appear next to a target, for instance).
All in all, the small drone weighs less than six pounds (that weight includes the drone, its launcher, and transportation case). Its warhead is comparable to a 40mm grenade. For navigation and target acquisition, the Switchblade uses a GPS and has the same ground control station (the control facility and software that guides a UAV) as the larger RQ-11 Raven and RQ-20 Puma drones. It also has a compact video camera to provide direct footage to its operator. It only has a 10- to 15-minute flight time, a speed of 55 to 85 knots, and a maximum effective range of six miles.
It has been used in Afghanistan to support combat operations, usually targeting either high-value targets (HVTs) or critical enemy battlefield targets (fortified positions, mortar teams, spotters, and even improvised explosive device planters). The Switchblade is being used by both the Army and the Marine Corps and provides platoon-sized elements with organic CAS and tactical recon capabilities.
The conceptualization and development of the Switchblade came after concerns over the high costs of the Javelin shoulder-fired missile system. Although an accurate and effective weapon, the Javelin comes with a hefty price tag—between $75,000 and $100,000 per missile. This means that live-fire training on the weapons system is limited and virtual-reality (VR) software is used instead to train war-fighters.
Recognizing the operational benefits of the concept, the USMC is looking to make its units more independent in terms of fire support. In 2018, it launched a theoretical weapons system called Organic Precision Fire (OPF), which, according to the USMC, aims to “enhance the range, precision and/or lethality of Marine Corps munitions against stationary and/or mobile land and/or sea targets in all operating environments.”
And, of course, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) isn’t far behind. In 2018, the spec ops command launched the Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE) program. The MPE seeks to integrate loitering munitions into the stealthy boats of the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen (SWCC), which, among other tasks, provide fire support and infiltration/exfiltration methods for Navy SEALs and other maritime SOF elements.
All of the above are fine, promising weapon systems. They don’t, however, pack the lethality and destructive capabilities of an aircraft’s payload, and their utility as a psychological weapon on the battlefield is lesser than, for example, a low pass by an A-10 Thunderbolt.