16 May 2016
The Navy is moving ahead with plans to deploy small drones from submarines and undersea robotic vehicles, further advancing the military’s push toward autonomous weapons systems.
Underwater-launched drones have been tested for at least a decade by the Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command. After experimenting with several vehicles, the Navy selected the “Blackwing” miniature tube-launched unmanned aircraft and will begin deploying them from manned submarines and from underwater robots, Blackwing manufacturer AeroVironment announced May 16.
The drone can be launched from fully submerged undersea platforms, including attack and guided missile submarines, and unmanned underwater vehicles.
The Blackwing is an offshoot of the company’s Switchblade miniature kamikaze missile that AeroVironment has produced for U.S. ground forces. The California-based company developed the Blackwing under a 2013 Navy and U.S. SOCOM sponsored technology demonstration called “advanced weapons enhanced by submarine UAS against mobile targets.”
The demonstration was completed in September 2015 with a “strong recommendation to transition the capability into the fleet,” AeroVironment said in a news release at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition at National Harbor, Maryland.
Weapons like the Blackwing — autonomous systems that can provide “eyes and ears” to the fleet and also can be used in killer roles — are viewed as central to the Pentagon’s broad strategy to fight wars in highly defended waters and coastal areas. The thinking is that U.S. adversaries increasingly are developing “anti-access area denial” weapons that would limit the U.S. military’s freedom of movement, its ability to identify distant targets and prevent it from gaining air, space and maritime superiority. Of special concern to the Pentagon are China anti-access, area denial weapons designed to disrupt U.S. forces in Asia Pacific.
The Blackwing is small but comes with advanced electronics typically found in much larger missiles — electro-optical and infrared sensors, selective availability anti-spoofing module GPS and a secure digital data link. The Navy has requested funds in its fiscal year 2017 budget to buy 150 Blackwings.
“In addition to operating from undersea vehicles, Blackwing can also be integrated with and deployed from a
wide variety of surface vessels and mobile ground vehicles to provide rapid response reconnaissance capabilities,” said Kirk Flittie, AeroVironment vice president and general manager of unmanned aircraft systems.
The Navy’s decision to acquire the Blackwing is a big win for AeroVironment, a company that has become known for its miniaturized drones. For years it has supplied small UAVs such as the Raven, the Wasp, the Puma and the Switchblade to U.S. infantry units. They all operate with a common ground control system. The company said it has delivered thousands of new and replacement small unmanned air vehicles to the United States and to more than 30 foreign governments.
The Switchblade is battery powered, equipped to carry surveillance cameras and also small warheads. It folds its wings back and slams into a target like a missile. After finding a target, Switchblade can be guided in to strike it. It detonates a small explosive charge on impact.
“Infantrymen can take it out of a backpack, put it in the tube and use it as a weapon immediately,” an AeroVironment spokesperson told National Defense in 2010. Switchblade was launched from U.S. Navy submarines tubes during Trident Warrior 2010. In another test last year, the Switchblade was launched from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey.
Financial commentator Rich Smith reported that in just 10 years as a publicly traded company, AeroVironment has sold more than 25,000 drones to military and other customers, and 1,500 of those drones are Switchblades.