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Switchblades in the Sky

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.

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