US troops in Afghanistan to get personal, portable killer drones

Two-foot-long Switchblade designed to be simple to carry, fly use send to self-destructive attack

This summer the Pentagon will send test samples of yet another generation of killer drones to Afghanistan – in the backpacks of U.S. soldiers.

The Army will ship about 50 of the new, Switchblade mini-UAVs to Afghanistan during the next month or so, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Army will put the new drones in the hands of front-line U.S. special-forces units to give them a way to get a bird's-eye-view of the battlefield, and attack snipers or other specific threats by diving on them and setting off the small warhead it carries.

Switchblade is a precision-strike weapon that poses far less of a risk to civilians that strikes from Predator or Global Hawk drones, which carry 100-pound, laser-guided Hellfire missiles or 500-pound bombs, according to William I. Nichols, who headed the Army's Switchblade development project at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala., according to the LAT.

The Pentagon is under orders to avoid civilian casualties from drone strikes, that have become a larger military and political problem for the White House, which has had to defend them against complaints from Pakistan and from anti-war groups.

However, Switchblade's greater value may be to ground troops, who chronically complain that the Air Force provides inadequate air cover for firefights on the ground.

Air Force pilots who fly the drones that now make up a third of the U.S. military aircraft in Afghanistan tend to focus more on their own intelligence-gathering and strike missions than on supporting troops on the ground, as some U.S. troops have complained.

Switchblade is strictly a short-range drone, launched and controlled by a single trooper on the ground, powered by a propeller rather than a jet and packed with only as much explosive as is practical to cram in without overloading its six-pound flight-weight limit.

Switchblade got its official nickname for the wings that fold into the fuselage for safekeeping most of the time, but snap out when the drone is launched from the mortar-like tube in which it ships. Once in the air, the Switchblade sends back pictures from a video cam in the nose and GPS coordinates the footsoldier piloting it can use to fly it, using a video-game-like control and video screen on the ground.

Testers in the U.S. nicknamed it the Kamikaze drone for the way it can be made to dive on a target – a sniper, mortar emplacement or other localized threat – and explode.

While that minimizes the potential for civilian casualties – and eliminates the need to wait hours for support from full-sized drones or fighters – it also puts the decision to kill in the hands of one person, rather than the chain of military officers, lawyers and intelligence analysts who participate on the decision over other drone strikes, the LAT quotes Columbia Law School human rights and counterterrorism expert Naureen Shah as saying.

Smaller, more powerful drones put more power into the hands of a smaller number of people, raising the potential for more mistakes, she said.

The ACLU and other U.S.-based human-rights groups have raised the same arguments to oppose deployment of surveillance drones by U.S. police departments.

The Pentagon hasn't made any decisions about Switchblade or other mini-drones, however.

More than 50 Switchblades will go to Afghanistan for live-fire tests in combat as part of a $10.1 million contract with Simi Valley defense contractor AeroVironment, Inc., which designed and manufactured it.

The Pentagon is considering buying $100 million worth of small drones and specialized munitions under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAM).

Among the other weapons the Pentagon is asking for under LMAM is a so-called "magic bullet" that can be fired like a rifle grenade, be remote-controlled from its point of origin to follow one specific person or target and fly around the area waiting for an opportunity if it misses the target the first time, according to Wired.

Switchblade/Kamikaze isn't a magic bullet. It's not even really a drone in the same sense as Predator and Global Hawk. It's a purposely slow-moving, operator-controlled guided missile that acts like an R/C drone until it attacks.

Still, for troops on the ground trying to reach a spotter, the vehicle in which the insurgent leader they were sent to capture is escaping, snipers or other long-range threats, it's a lot easier to pull out of a backpack and fire off than a Predator would be. Even without having to wake up an Air Force pilot back home to fly it.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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