The US military has issued soldiers in Afghanistan with a new class of lightweight unmanned drone known as the Switchblade, which can be carried in a backpack and used on the battlefield in place of an air strike.
The Switchblade, manufactured by the AeroVironment Corporation in Monrovia, California, weighs just under 2.7kg and can be rapidly launched and sent to circle above the battlefield before being sent to zero in on the enemy.
The weapon, which commanders have dubbed the “Flying Shotgun,” has been widely tested by the US Army, US Marines and US Air Force. Like larger Predator or Reaper drones, the unmanned Switchblade is flown by a “pilot” who monitors the flight from a video screen.
Defence analysts believe warfare in the future will see many more mini armed drones which are now called “loitering munitions” and provide ground troops with a view described as coming from “the tip of the bullet.”
However, arms control groups and peace activists see the new weaponry as at best controversial. Bruce Gagnon, the co-ordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, said: “People are beginning to see that these technologies are going to be dual use — meaning over there and back here at home.”
Like much of the drone war, the deployment of the Switchblade is kept secret. The US military refuses to acknowledge how many Switchblades are in stock, in which countries they are deployed or to which units they are being supplied. The only official acknowledgement came from an army general who last October admitted that “less than a dozen” Switchblades have been deployed.
However, in a February 2010 solicitation for production specifications of these mini-drones for the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal asked potential suppliers to provide the “cost per system for quantities of 500, 2,000 and 20,000 units.”
Following successful battlefield testing, the Switchblade has now been distributed to conventional infantry troops. While drone strikes from fixed-wing aircraft have a chain of command that stretches from Afghanistan to the US, with multiple steps to avoid civilian casualties or friendly fire casualties, these ultra-light, portable drones bring the decision to kill down to the level of platoon commander or even individual soldier.
News of the munitions deployment comes as a report on the US’ global image which highlights there is widespread opposition to the Obama administration’s increasing use of unmanned aircraft to kill terror suspects.
The Pew Research Center’s report yesterday found that in 17 of the 21 countries surveyed, more than half of the people disapproved of US drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.