FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Switchblades in the Sky

by JONATHAN FRANKLIN

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 six pounds (2.7kg) and can be rapidly launched and sent over the nearest ridge to circle above the battlefield before being sent to zero in on the enemy – usually the chest or head of an enemy combatant.

The weapon, which commanders have dubbed the “Flying Shotgun”, has been widely tested by the US Army, US Marines and US Air Force. It has proved so effective that AeroVironment has announced more than US$14m (£9m) worth of Switchblade systems and related engineering contracts in the past 10 months.

The increasing use of drones to target militants under the Obama administration has proved controversial as critics say assassinations conducted by drones amount to extrajudicial killing.Like larger Predator or Reaper drones, the unmanned Switchblade is flown by a “pilot” who monitors the flight from a video screen. The Switchblade can loiter above the target before being sent in to strike. It typically flies far lower than other drones, often less than 500ft above the ground and is highly manoeuvrable, allowing it to circle in on a fixed or fleeing target.

The Switchblade is designed for use by small ground units who need to attack nearby targets – snipers on a ridge, rebels on a rooftop or an ambush the next ridge over.

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 it would not be long before the drones were being used domestically. “People are beginning to see that these technologies are going to be dual use – meaning over there and back here at home,” he said.

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 being distributed to conventional infantry troops including the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Unit based at Fort Riley, Kansas. Last month, members of the battalion spent a week practising the launch, flight and detonation of the drones.

While drone strikes from fixed-wing aircraft have a chain of command that stretches from Afghanistan to the United States, 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.

According to Gagnon, the advent of the small drone is another step in the military’s bid to have battle fought by robots. “We have been seeing this attempt by the military to essentially roboticize warfare. It gives them two very valuable results, it lessens the price, as a drone is much cheaper than an F-16, and secondly it takes increasingly less people on the battlefield.

“You still need a lot of people back home flying them and sitting in front of the computers,” said Gagnon, “but it puts less people in harm’s way and the Pentagon is happy about this. It is easier to sell endless war when fewer GIs are coming home in bodybags.”

“Technology is moving at lightning speed and policy is moving at glacial speed,” said PW Singer, the author of Wired for War, a critical analysis of the military use of robotic technologies. “This tech is proliferating, with more than 50 countries now building, buying and using military robotics. The cat is already out of the bag.”

Jonathan Franklin writes for the Guardian, where this article originally appeared.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail