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Army scrambles to send munitions downrange

Feb. 14, 2013 - 06:42AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 14, 2013 - 06:42AM  |  
The Army is asking for "dramatically more" Switchblade munitions systems, above, for the combat zone.
The Army is asking for "dramatically more" Switchblade munitions systems, above, for the combat zone. (AeroVironment)
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Operation: Hand-held ground control station
Weight: 6 pounds
Length: 24 inches
Maker: AeroVironment
Flying time: Up to 10 minutes
Cost so far: $10 million

Commanders are calling for "dramatically more" Switchblade munitions systems to be sent downrange, and Army officials say they are scrambling to send them.

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Commanders are calling for "dramatically more" Switchblade munitions systems to be sent downrange, and Army officials say they are scrambling to send them.

Pentagon officials are reviewing an urgent-needs statement for the Switchblade to go to Afghanistan, Army officials told Defense News, a sister publication of Army Times.

The lightweight, tube-launched Switchblade is also called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munitions Systems.

While declining to give specifics about the number of systems commanders in Afghanistan have requested, Col. Pete Newell, the Rapid Equipping Force's director, said it was more than his budget could handle.

"Theater came in and said, ‘We need dramatically more' " than the 75 initially supplied in late 2012, Newell said, "so now it really is an Army discussion because it exceeded my budget."

An Army spokesperson said the service would not comment further on operational details of the request.

The Switchblade is small and light enough to fit in a backpack. After it is launched, the soldier can guide it to its intended target using a hand-held ground control station before crashing it, detonating the explosive round it carries.

As late as October, REF officials were saying the weapon was still awaiting final go-ahead for its first mission, but Newell said Jan. 31 that within the last month, there had been several successes.

"It's gained some notoriety of its own on both sides," including among the insurgents it has been targeting, he said.

The system is a direct-fire munition, not a drone, Newell said, adding that if a mission has to be canceled because the target has fled into a house that might contain non-combatants, the operator can safely "dump" the explosives it is carrying elsewhere before landing.

In August, the Army issued a request for information to further develop the LMAMS program so it can loiter for up to an hour and be preprogrammed to hit a target up to six miles away. Newell said the goal is for LMAMS to become a program of record. Several companies have expressed interest in competing for the work, including Textron, Raytheon and Rafael.

The Army has signed two contracts with AeroVironment totaling more than $10 million to procure the Switchblade, the latest a $5.1 million deal signed in May.

More unmanned systems

The Army is also taking a new approach to upgrading and equipping the next generation of small unmanned aerial systems. In December, the service selected AeroVironment, Altavian, Innovative Automation Technologies, Lockheed Martin and Elbit Systems of America to compete for $248 million worth of work to fulfill the Army's small UAS needs.

Col. Timothy Baxter, Army UAS project manager, said Feb. 4 that his office is "aggressively pushing our unmanned aircraft systems stakeholders to really do a critical review of our UAS base philosophies within the Army."

The Army is sifting through a dozen bids for a replacement engine for the AAI Corp.-produced RQ-7 Shadow UAS. The Army is set to choose two vendors to produce new engines on the Shadow in 2014.

"We've broken this away from AAI and are giving this to industry to get industry involved in the Shadow program," he said.

The UAS project office is also working closely with Training and Doctrine Command to determine whether UAS doctrine needs an overhaul as the Army studies mission sets outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We've been kind of [forward operating base]-centric in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years or so," Baxter said, "so really instilling an expeditionary or mobile operations mindset with our UAS is going to be our focus as we develop our strategic plans for the future and our five-year plan for product improvements across the board."

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