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U.S. Army Wants More Switchblades

Remote-Control Munitions Are Small, Lethal

Feb. 12, 2013 - 08:16AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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Pentagon officials are reviewing a joint urgent needs statement for the lightweight, tube-launched, Lethal Miniature Aerial Munitions Systems (LMAMS) — better known as the Switchblade — for use in Afghanistan, U.S. Army officials told Defense News.

While declining to give specifics on the number of systems that commanders in Afghanistan have requested, Col. Pete Newell, the Rapid Equipping Force’s (REF) director, said it was more than his budget could handle.

“Theater came in and said, ‘We need dramatically more’ ” than the 75 initially supplied in late 2012, Newell said, “so now it really is an Army discussion because it exceeded my budget.”

An Army spokesperson said the service would not comment further on operational details of the request.

The camera-enabled, 6-pound, 24-inch-long Switchblade, supplied by AeroVironment, is small and light enough to fit in a backpack. After it is launched from a small tube, the soldier can guide it to its intended target using a handheld ground control station before crashing it, detonating the explosive round it carries. The tiny killer can fly for up to 10 minutes.

As late as October, REF officials were saying the weapon was still awaiting final go-ahead for its first mission, but Newell said that within the past month there had been several successes.

“It’s gained some notoriety of its own on both sides,” including among the insurgents that it has been targeting, he said.

Newell emphasized that the system is a direct fire munition and not a drone (“write that down,” he commanded), adding that if a mission has to be canceled because the target has fled into a house that might contain non-combatants, the operator can safely “dump” the explosives it is carrying elsewhere before landing.

In August, the Army issued a request for information to further develop the LMAMS program so it can loiter for up to an hour and soldiers could preprogram a target up to six miles away. Newell said the goal is for LMAMS to become a program of record. Several companies have expressed interest in competing for the work, including Textron, Raytheon and Rafael.

The Army has signed two contracts with AeroVironment totaling more than $10 million to procure the Switchblade, the latest being a $5.1 million deal signed in May.

The Army is also taking a new approach to upgrading and equipping the next generation of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In December, the service selected AeroVironment, Altavian, Innovative Automation Technologies, Lockheed Martin and Elbit Systems of America to compete for $248 million worth of work to fulfill the Army’s small UAS needs. This way, the service is tapping into a few companies to provide goods and services on short notice.

Speaking with reporters Feb. 4, Col. Timothy Baxter, Army UAS project manager, said, “I think industry is happy that we’ve developed this acquisition strategy to be able to compete small UAS across the board,” and that his office is “aggressively pushing our unmanned aircraft systems stakeholders to really do a critical review of our UAS base philosophies within the Army.”

As part of this focus on small UAS, the Army is sifting through a dozen bids for a replacement engine for the AAI Corp.-produced RQ-7 Shadow UAS. The dozen vendors will be whittled down to five over the coming months, before the service conducts performance and endurance testing this summer. The Army will eventually choose two vendors to produce new engines on the Shadow some time in 2014.

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