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Developers Vie to Equip Army With Small Expendable Armed Drones

Jul. 22, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By ERIK SCHECHTER   |   Comments
The Switchblade unfolds its wings after launch, then can be directed to reconnoiter a target and deliver a precise airstike.
The Switchblade unfolds its wings after launch, then can be directed to reconnoiter a target and deliver a precise airstike. (AeroVironment)
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Are tube-fired “suicide” drones the new pocket artillery that will give dismounted troops a smaller footprint and a longer reach? Developers of lethal miniature aerial munition systems certainly think so as they gear up for a new Army program set for fiscal 2016.

However, others doubt that the LMAMS will have any impact on military operations following a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A lightweight unmanned aerial system kitted with a 40mm warhead, the LMAMS offers the infantry something it never had with traditional mortar rounds: 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 from the Rapid Equipping Force.

The current LMAMS solution, the 6-pound Switchblade, is produced by AeroVironment, which declined to comment on its role in the field. However, an Army official at the Close Combat Weapons Systems Project Office — the PEO Missiles and Space office that awarded the company two LMAMS contracts totaling more than $10 million — said that “soldiers and leaders have readily embraced it as an invaluable tool.”

The main draw, the official said, is Switchblade’s precision and its ability to limit non-combatant casualties.

“The ability to wave off a target after launch is unique to this weapon over almost all other weapons,” he said. “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.”

With this in mind, the Army is looking at an LMAMS program of record and will be considering additional systems besides Switchblade. In August 2012, the service issued a request for information, and a number of companies that first competed with AeroVironment in 2011 plan on making a second go of it.

Derek Lyon, LMAMS program manager at Prioria Robotics (which partnered with Textron Defense Systems during the last competition), hopes to drive home the advantages his company’s Maveric has over Switchblade. One issue is endurance: An armed Switchblade can loiter in the air for only 10 minutes, which does not give ground forces much time for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, he said. By contrast, Maveric can stay aloft three times as long, he said.

“In a real deployed situation, when you’re taking enemy fire,” said Lyon, “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 resembles the birdlike Maveric and has just as much endurance. It can also be integrated with a ground sensor that would relay target data to BattleHawk.

Both companies see the LMAMS as a game-changer for small units of soldiers and Marines.

“Ground forces are not ‘tied back’ to their command posts because of weapons such as BattleHawk,” said Henry Finneral, vice president of Advanced Weapons & Sensors at Textron. “Soldiers can now engage enemy targets quickly and without the large signature that artillery leaves behind.”

Lyon sees loitering munitions being used in Africa, Asian and Latin American hot spots where the U.S. might need a small, rapidly deployable expeditionary force. He imagines suicide drones employed like a miniature air 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?”

The Army has not decided how many more units it wants. But given the impending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Steve Zaloga, an analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said he doubts that the LMAMS will ever be purchased in large quantities — especially not enough to influence future tactics. At best, he said, they are nice-to-have weapons.

“It is a configuration well-suited to low-intensity conflict in the highlands,” he said, “but it is very expensive per mission compared to more conventional fire support methods.”

Lyon grants that, with the Afghan War winding down, there will be no rush on the LMAMS program. But he takes the long view.

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

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