America’s drone warfare capabilities have been around for more than two decades now. The Predator drone and the Reaper have both been used around the world including in high-profile strikes like the one that killed Iran’s Qassem Soleimani.
But there are some obvious downsides to these large drones. For one thing, they are expensive. A Predator drone costs about $16 million not to mention the cost of the associated equipment and a highly trained pilot flying it remotely. Also, the Hellfire missiles it fires cost somewhere between $70,000 and $160,000 each depending on when they were purchased and whether the price includes training, support, spare parts, etc. Bottom line, it’s pricey technology.
Hellfire missiles are also extremely powerful, which in some cases means they wind up creating more casualties than intended. We saw an example of this recently when a US drone fired a missile at a man believed to be planning an attack on US soldiers during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It turned out he was an aid worker and the missile’s explosion killed a bunch of children who came to greet him when he returned home.
A company called AeroVironment has come up with an alternative. Their drone, called the Switchblade 300, is small enough to be carried in a backpack and can be launched from the ground by a single soldier. The drone itself can target vehicles or individuals using a laptop or tablet. Once the drone has a target it flies directly to it at 70 mph and can explode with enough force to kill a single person or damage the entire vehicle. Perhaps the most significant difference is the price:
NBC News traveled to a military testing center for exclusive access to the first public demonstration of the Switchblade 300, a small, low-cost “kamikaze” drone made by AeroVironment, which sources said the U.S. military has used quietly for years in targeted killing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria…
They can leapfrog traditional defenses to strike infantry troops anywhere on the battlefield, and they cost just $6,000 apiece, compared to $150,000 for the Hellfire missile typically fired by Predator or Reaper drones…
Weighing just 5½ pounds, including its small warhead, the Switchblade can be taken into battle in a backpack and fly up to 7 miles to hit a target.
The Switchblade can also be waved off up to 2 seconds before it detonates. NBC notes that a capability like that would have prevented the loss of life which occurred in Afghanistan because in that case children could be seen gathering at the last minute by the drone but at that point it was too late to call off the missile.
Of course, we’re not the only country that has these drones. And it seems likely that, eventually, terrorist groups could have them too. The downside of this tech being so much cheaper is that it really levels the playing field.
“I think this is going to be the new IED,” or improvised explosive device, said Shaan Shaikh, a missile expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s something that we can see that is going to be a problem, and we have some defenses, but not enough.”…
“There are over 100 countries and nonstate groups that have drones today, and the technology is widely proliferating,” said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger who is a scholar at the Center for a New American Security and the author of “Army of None,” a book about autonomous weapons. “It levels the playing field between the U.S. and terrorist groups or rebel groups in a way that’s certainly not good for the United States.”
All you really have to do it watch one of these things in action and you can quickly see how a group of infantry soldiers carrying these would change the situation on the ground dramatically. Here’s the NBC report:
One day after the NBC report, AeroVironment has a new video up about the entire system and how it works.