CORRECTION - Blackwing is a reconnaissance system. The dash speed of the Switchblade 600 is 115 mph.
WASHINGTON — Building on its Switchblade 300 loitering missile legacy with the U.S. Army, AeroVironment is releasing a family of capabilities to include its new Switchblade 600, a larger version suited to go up against armored targets at greater ranges in denied and degraded environments.
AeroVironment has provided the tube-launched, rucksack-portable Switchblade to the Army for roughly a decade, delivering thousands of them into theater, but the company sealed the largest loitering munitions deal to date with the service in May — a $146 million contract, funded at $76 million for the first year, to supply the 300 version of the system for the Lethal Miniature Aerial Missile Systems program.
“Our family of loitering missile systems is redefining and disrupting a multibillion-dollar missiles market,” AeroVironment CEO Wahid Nawabi told reporters during a Sept. 30 media event.
The family also includes Blackwing, a loitering reconnaissance system that can be deployed from a submarine while submerged and used in an underwater air-delivery canister.
“The ability to identify a threat on the battlefield, assess it, neutralize the threat with an extremely high degree of precision, with low to no collateral damage, while always having the option of waving off the mission and reengaging the same or different target, is at the core of our solution sets and capabilities,” Nawabi said, “and we’re going beyond that.”
Department of Defense customers wanted the same features of the 300, but with greater effects, Todd Hanning, AeroVironment’s product line manager for tactical missile systems, said during the same event.
“The 600 delivers with enhanced effects, greater standoff range and extended endurance,” Hanning said. “This all-in-one, man-portable solution includes everything required to successfully launch, fly, track and engage non-line-of-sight targets with lethal effects.”
The 50-pound system can be set up and operational in less than 10 minutes and is designed to be capable of launching from ground, air or mobile platforms, “providing superior force overmatch while minimizing exposure to enemy direct and indirect fires,” Hanning said.
The new version can fly for 40 minutes with a range of more than 40 kilometers. The missile exceeds a 115 mph dash speed and carries an anti-armor warhead designed to neutralize armored vehicles without the need for external intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or fires assets.
The new system comes with a touchscreen tablet-based fire control system with an option to pilot the vehicle manually or autonomously. The missile is secured through onboard encrypted data links and Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module GPS.
The Switchblade 600 is also equipped with a patented wave-off capability where operators can abort missions at any time and recommit.
“From [artificial intelligence] to autonomy, we’re not stopping there. We’re investing in future technologies like edge computing and artificial intelligence engines, latest-gen processing with massive computing power,” Hanning said. “We believe it’ll be the smartest loitering missile in the market.”
AeroVironment began developing the 600 as a new class of loitering missiles to meet a set of requirements in an Army development program called Single Multi-Mission Attack Missile. But according to Brett Hush, the company’s senior general manager of product line management for tactical missile systems, “we’ve evolved beyond that.”
Other customers, including the U.S. Marine Corps and a “number of DoD customers,” have since adopted similar requirements, he said.
“We’ve been developing very closely with a number of DoD customers,” Hush said, “The only one that we can talk about publicly at this point in time is the U.S. Marine Corps program, of which we are one of the competitors in the phase one development demonstration.”
He added there would be a fly-off in January followed by a downselect to a single supplier.
The company has had a rigorous test schedule over the past several years for the Switchblade 600, according to Hanning. Most of that testing was ground-launched against both fixed and moving targets. “I think we are up to about over 60 flights in our test program,” he added, "and we’ll continue to do that through this next year.
Then the 600 will progress into both maritime and aerial environments, Hanning said.
AeroVironment is also continuing to find ways to integrate Switchblade into air and ground platforms. The company continues to team up with General Dynamics Land Systems to offer an integrated solution as part of its offering to the Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle competition.
AeroVironment is also teaming with Kratos Defense and Security Systems to demonstrate a “high-speed, long-range unmanned combat air vehicle” that serves as a mothership to deliver large quantities of Switchblade 300s that can provide a mesh network of information back to a ground control station “to tactically execute multiple attack scenarios cooperatively and to overwhelm and disable enemy systems,” Hanning said.
Initial air-launch testing will begin at the start of next year, Hush said.
While AeroVironment is not one of the initial companies developing capabilities within the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Air-Launched Effects, or FVL ALE, portfolio, “we definitely see a way for AeroVironment to participate in that and really be a player in that market knowing that Switchblade 600 is definitely designed for air-launched effects, air-launched capability,” Hush said, “and that’s something that we’ll continue to work on and look at the opportunity to be a part of that effort. We definitely see its capabilities are directly aligned with that fight and with those platforms.”
When asked if the company submitted an offering to the ALE development competition, Nawabi said: “I’m not in a position to be able to comment on the specific details due to the competitive nature of the deal, but we believe that we have a lot to offer for the ALE program and initiative as a whole. I will keep you updated in the future.”