Switchblade 600 is an extended-range loitering missile system capable of multi-domain operations. (Photo: AeroVironment, Inc.)

AeroVironment Inc., a global leader in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), announced it was awarded a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract by the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) for US$26 million.

The contract includes delivery and integration of Switchblade® 600 tactical missile systems into specialized maritime platforms, scheduled to be completed by January 2023.

According to the company, the AeroVironment Switchblade 600 is an all-in-one, portable solution equipped with a high-performance EO/IR gimbaled sensor suite, precision flight control and more than 40 minutes of flight time to deliver unprecedented tactical reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA).

Its anti-armor warhead enables engagement and prosecution of hardened static and moving light armored vehicles from multiple angles – without external ISR or fires assets – for precise, localized effects and minimal collateral damage.

All that is military talk, for a kick-ass loitering munition — which every military service wants and needs.

But wait, there’s more.

AeroVironment’s tactical missile systems provide users with the ability to identify threats and deliver a precision lethal payload with minimal collateral damage. 

Switchblade® 300 and Switchblade® 600 loitering missile systems enable the warfighter to easily launch, fly, track and engage beyond line-of-sight targets and light armored vehicles across land, maritime and air-launched scenarios.

The Blackwing loitering reconnaissance system is a variant of Switchblade designed to provide rapid-response intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and can be deployed from a submarine using an underwater-to-air delivery canister, shipboard or mobile ground vehicle via tube-launch or Multipack Launcher.

AeroVironment’s tactical missile systems deliver the actionable intelligence and precision firepower needed to achieve mission success across multiple domains.

OK, now that we got the company promo stuff done, let’s talk about what exactly loitering munitions are, and why everyone wants it.

A loitering munition (also known as a suicide drone or kamikaze drone) is a weapon system category in which the munition loiters around the target area for some time, searches for targets, and attacks once a target is located.

The Switchblade 600 is an all-in-one, portable solution equipped with a high-performance sensor suite, precision flight control and more than 40 minutes of flight time to deliver unprecedented tactical reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Photo Credit: AeroVironment.

According to military analysts, loitering munitions enable faster reaction times against concealed or hidden targets that emerge for short periods without placing high-value platforms close to the target area.

In other words, your Marine Corps unit is pinned down on a beach by attacking Chinese forces.

Loitering munitions launched by unmanned naval ships would come to your rescue — blasting enemy forces without prejudice, potentially allowing Marines to gain ground.

But the history of loitering munitions has interesting roots.

By most accounts, Israel pioneered the development of loitering munitions in the late 1980s or early 1990s as an anti-radar solution. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was always a pioneer in UAV usage — they reduced casualties and political risk, key considerations with a conscripted force.

The IDF realized the potential of UAVs in the anti-radar role following its experience during the 1982 Lebanon War.

Israeli UAVs were used for reconnaissance and as decoys to destroy multiple Syrian Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, in what was called Operation Drugstore.

During the operation, simple Delilah decoy drones were launched in large numbers, masquerading as an Israeli strike force.

Once the Syrian radars switched on to engage the drones, Israel fired a variety of anti-radar missiles adapted for ground launch and launched a real air attack on the radars.

The first loitering munition, the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Harpy, combined the drone and the anti-radar missile. The Harpy would be launched and enter a searching pattern, waiting for a radar to activate.

If a radar activated, the Harpy would then home in on and destroy the radar using a blast fragmentation warhead in its body. The Harpy could loiter over the battlefield for up to six hours after launch.

IAI also developed another loitering munition, the CUTLASS in conjunction with Raytheon in 1999. Development of these systems continued throughout the 2000s, but the systems largely were not ready for the spotlight.

The Delilah decoy drone also was turned into a loitering munition around this time, incorporating technology from the Harpy and a true warhead.

However, the loitering munition would only really take off in the 2010s as sensor technology improved and drones got smaller.

Improved camera technology meant that loitering munitions could see and target anything visible on the battlefield, not just radars.

Loitering munitions, piggybacking off of advanced drones, got smaller to the point where they could be carried and launched by individual soldiers.

The United States fielded its own miniature loitering munition in 2012 with the AeroVironment Switchblade.

The Switchblade was used by the US Army in Afghanistan to target “high value targets,” whether it be insurgent leaders, mortar teams, or insurgents traveling in a vehicles.

While limited in endurance, the Switchblade could loiter over the battlefield if the target was not immediately visible after launch.

US procurement of loitering munitions stepped up in 2018, with the Marine Corps launching a program to procure them to replace their 120mm mortars as an organic precision fire capability.

And now, SOCOM is also looking to add loitering munitions to boats used by Special Operations forces.

Given their low radar, visual, and thermal signatures, loitering munitions are very hard to track and kill. Success on a future battlefield may very well be determined by which side can use loitering munitions to the greatest effect.

In Burma, during the Second World War, the Gurkhas would slip behind enemy lines to silently cut throats. They were never seen and they were never heard — but they were very effective.

Loitering munitions, do exactly the same thing.

It is no wonder, the Marine Corps are looking for new loitering suicide drones that troops can launch while on the move, listing them as its number one acquisition priority.

Let me repeat that, the number one acquisition priority.

The two systems came in at the top of a list of equipment the service wants as it builds new light battalions to operate in small, dispersed groups on Pacific island chains. 

In November, the Corps asked the defense industry for help in developing what it called an “Organic Precision Fires-Infantry,” a portable tube that can launch a small drone capable of loitering for up to 90 minutes at a range of about 12 miles, and capable of “swarming” with other drones.

The Corps is also looking for “Organic Precision Fires-Mounted” munition — another loitering drone — which would be launched from a Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAV) or similar vehicle, which would partially replace many of the 120mm mortars the service has decided to get rid of.

The systems fit in with the emerging Marine Corps plan to become lighter, faster, and more precise after its troops spending the past two decades operating out of fixed bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, acting more as traditional infantry than an expeditionary force designed to rapidly kick open doors at the outset of hostilities.

Regardless, loitering munitions are likely to be fielded by more and more militaries in the 2020s given their versatility and effectiveness. This is only the beginning.

Sources: AeroVironment Inc., National Interest, Breaking Defense, Wikipedia