Weapons of the War in Afghanistan
In the world of war, weapons and technology are ever changing, each war is characterized by the weapons and tactics used to fight it. As new environments and enemies are encountered, the parties to those wars develop new - more effective tactics, technologies, and weapons to counter and defeat their adversaries. The ingenuity seen in war has existed since (and most certainly before) the first wars of recorded history and continue to this very day.
Keeping with that theory, let’s take a look at the weapons that have characterized the wars and conflicts that the United States has been a party to over the course of it’s history. During the course of this series, I aim to breakdown the weapons used in each conflict by their classification, and to which party they were employed by. Having served in combat operations in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, I would like to start our series with the War in Afghanistan.
For our twelfth installment let's take a look at the most common Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs) of the war in Afghanistan. These can be anything from surveillance and Reconnaissance UAVs, to UAVs armed with precision-guided munitions. UAVs have played a larger role in the modern conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Global War on Terror overall.
TACCOM FRICTION FREE FOLLOWER - BENELLI NOVA / VINCI
Part III: The United States (Continued)
The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle is a small, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing. ScanEagle is a descendant of another Insitu UAV, the Insitu SeaScan, which was conceived of as a remote sensor for collecting weather data as well as helping commercial fishermen locate and track schools of tuna. ScanEagle emerged as the result of a strategic alliance between Boeing and Insitu. The resulting technology has been successful as a portable Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for autonomous surveillance in the battlefield, and has been deployed since August 2004.
ScanEagle carries a stabilized electro-optical and/or infrared camera on a lightweight inertial stabilized turret system, and an integrated communications system having a range of over 62 miles; it has a flight endurance of over 20 hours. ScanEagle has a 10.2-foot wingspan a length of 4.5 feet and a mass of 44 pounds and can operate up to 80 knots (92 mph), with an average cruising speed of 48 knots (55 mph). Block D aircraft featured a higher-resolution camera, a custom-designed Mode C transponder and a new video system. A Block D aircraft, flying at Boeing's test range in Boardman, Oregon set a type endurance record of 22 hours, 8 minutes.
ScanEagle needs no airfield for deployment. Instead, it is launched using a pneumatic launcher, patented by Insitu, known as the "SuperWedge" launcher. It is recovered using the "Skyhook" retrieval system, which uses a hook on the end of the wingtip to catch a rope hanging from a 30-to-50-foot pole. This is made possible by high-quality differential GPS units mounted on the top of the pole and UAV. The rope is attached to a shock cord to reduce stress on the airframe imposed by the abrupt stop. NavtechGPS worked with the manufacturer of the GPS receiver system to enable the system to work in different environments, expanding the capabilities of the UAS for different mission types and areas of the world. The GPS receiver system NavtechGPS designed for the ScanEagle is still in use today.
Each ScanEagle system costs US$3.2 million (2006). A complete system comprises four air vehicles or AVs, a ground control station, remote video terminal, the SuperWedge launch system and Skyhook recovery system.
On 18 March 2008, Boeing, with ImSAR and Insitu successfully flight-tested a ScanEagle with ImSAR's NanoSAR A radar mounted aboard. The ImSAR NanoSAR is the world's smallest Synthetic Aperture Radar, weighs 3.5 lb and is 100 cubic inches in volume. It is designed to provide high quality real-time ground imaging through adverse weather conditions or other battlefield obscurants.
In 2009, Insitu announced the NightEagle, a modified ScanEagle Block E with an infrared camera for night operations.
In August 2010, Boeing announced plans to control ScanEagles from control stations on E-3A AWACS aircraft and on the V-22.
In July 2011, a team of two ScanEagles and another UAV cooperated to search and navigate a mountain area autonomously.
In 2014, Insitu began development of the Flying Launch and Recovery System (FLARES), a system designed to launch and recover the ScanEagle without the need to transport and assemble the launch catapult and recovery crane. It consists of second, quadrotor UAV that carries the ScanEagle vertically and releases it into forward flight. For recovery, the quadrotor hovers trailing a cable that it captures, as it would the cable from the SkyHook crane. FLARES incorporates the VTOL advantages of launch and recovery in confined areas, as well as eliminating the rail and crane equipment, with the flying efficiency of a fixed-wing body. Demonstrations of the system took place from late 2014 to mid-2015, and low-rate production is scheduled for late 2016.
MQ-8 Fire Scout
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for use by the United States Armed Forces. The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333. The larger MQ-8C Fire Scout variant is based on the Bell 407.
The MQ-8B features a four-blade main rotor, in contrast to the larger-diameter three-blade rotor of the RQ-8A, to reduce noise and improve lift capacity and performance. The four-blade rotor had already been evaluated on Fire Scout prototypes. They boost gross takeoff weight by 500 lb to 3,150 lb, with payloads of up to 700 lb for short-range missions. The length of the MQ-8B is 23.95 ft , the width is 6.20 ft, and the height is 9.71ft.
The MQ-8B is fitted with stub wings which serve both an aerodynamic purpose as well as an armament carriage location. Weapons to be carried include Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and, in particular, pods carrying the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided 70 mm folding-fin rocket, which the Army saw as ideal for the modern battlefield. The Army was also interested in using the Fire Scout to carry up to 200 lb of emergency supplies to troops in the field.
The MQ-8B is being modified to permit rapid swap out of payload configurations. The current sensor configuration of a day/night turret with a laser target designator will remain an option. Alternate sensor payloads in consideration include a TSAR with Moving Target Indicator (MTI) capability, a multispectral sensor, a SIGINT module, the Target Acquisition Minefield Detection System (ASTAMIDS), and the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL). The Army wanted the Fire Scout to operate as an element of an integrated ground sensor network as well.
The Army interest revived Navy interest in the program, with the Navy ordering eight Sea Scout MQ-8B derivatives for evaluation. In January 2010, the Army terminated its involvement with the Fire Scout, contending that the RQ-7 Shadow UAV could meet the Army's needs. In 2009, the Navy approved low-rate initial production.
On 30 December 2012, the Navy issued an urgent order to install RDR-1700 maritime surveillance radars on nine MQ-8Bs. The RDR-1700 is an X-band synthetic aperture radar housed in a modified radome mounted on the helicopter's underside for 360-degree coverage, interfaced with the UAV and its control station. Detailed range is out to 16 mi, with a max range of 50 mi. The RDR-1700 can see through clouds and sandstorms and can perform terrain mapping or weather detection, and track 20 air or surface targets, determining a target's range, bearing, and velocity. In January 2013, the Navy awarded a $33 million contract to Telephonics for the RDR-1700B+ radar, designated AN/ZPY-4(V)1. The radar gives a beyond the horizon broad area search and track capability to track up to 200 targets and operates in surface search, terrain mapping, emergency beacon detection, and weather avoidance modes, supplementing the FLIR Systems Brite Star II electro-optical/infrared payload. It was first demonstrated on an MQ-8B on 7 May 2014.
In 2017, the MQ-8B will receive a mine-detection sensor for use in littoral waters called the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA). The COBRA is designed to detect naval mines at a safe distance from a Littoral Combat Ship operating in coastal waters, and also has the capability to locate submarines through acoustic detection if they are on or near the surface. COBRA takes the place of the Fire Scout's usual EO/IR sensor.
In August 2013, the MQ-8B surpassed 5,000 flight hours in Afghanistan. In 28 months, Fire Scouts had accumulated 5,084 hours providing critical surveillance for U.S. and allied forces. Combined with testing and six at-sea deployments, the helicopter has over 10,000 flight hours supporting naval and ground forces. In late 2013, the Fire Scout ended its Afghanistan deployment mission and were shipped back to the US. MQ-8Bs will still be deployed on Naval frigates, and be integrated onto Littoral Combat Ships. The Navy also ordered the Telephonics AN/ZPY-4 radar to expand surveillance capabilities. Twelve radars, including three spares, will be delivered by December 2014. The Navy will buy a total of 96 MQ-8B/C Fire Scouts.
The Boeing Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack is an American unmanned air vehicle designed and built by Boeing Insitu to meet a United States Navy requirement for a small tactical unmanned air system (STUAS). It is a twin-boom, single-engine, monoplane, designed as a supplement to the Boeing Scan Eagle. The Integrator weighs 135 lb and uses the same launcher and recovery system as the Scan Eagle.
The RQ-21A Blackjack is designed to support the U.S. Marine Corps by providing forward reconnaissance. A Blackjack system is composed of five air vehicles and two ground control systems. The air vehicles can be launched on land or on a ship by a rail and land using a "skyhook" recovery system, where a vertical wire must be hooked onto its wing; when on the ground, the launch and recovery systems are towable by vehicles. Its wingspan is 16 ft and it can carry a 39 lb payload. The day/night camera can achieve resolution rating of 7 on the NIIRS scale at 8,000 ft.
The Marines are working with Insitu to modify the Blackjack fuselage to carry greater and more various payloads. Enlarging the fuselage would increase its maximum takeoff weight from 135 lb to 145 lb and lengthen endurance from 16 hours to 24 hours. New turrets are being explored as well as other payloads including a synthetic aperture radar to track ground targets, a laser designator to mark targets for precision-guided munitions, and foliage-penetration capabilities for foreign customers operating in lush environments. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) plans to add a sensor to the Blackjack that combines an electro-optical camera, wide area imager, short wave infrared hyperspectral imager, and a high-resolution camera for use as an inspection sensor into a single payload by 2020.
The U.S. Marine Corps deployed its first RQ-21A Blackjack system to Afghanistan in late April 2014. One Blackjack system is composed of five air vehicles, two ground control systems, and launch and recovery support equipment. It supports intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions using multi-intelligence payloads including day and night full-motion video cameras, an infrared marker, a laser range finder, a communications relay package, and automatic identification system receivers. The models in Afghanistan were early operational capability (EOC) aircraft without shipboard software or testing. Deploying the aircraft on the ground was a way to catch and fix problems early on that could delay the project. The RQ-21 returned from its deployment on 10 September 2014 after flying nearly 1,000 hours in 119 days in theater. EOC Blackjacks will continue to be used for training, while completion of shipboard testing is planned to result in the system's first ship-based deployment in spring 2015.
The Marine Corps declared Initial Operational Capability for the RQ-21A Blackjack in January 2016.
The Switchblade is an unmanned aerial vehicle developed by AeroVironment. It is designed as a "kamikaze," being able to crash into its target with an explosive warhead to destroy it. The Switchblade is small enough to be carried in a backpack and can be launched from a variety of ground, maritime, and air platforms.
The Switchblade is designed as an expendable UAV to increase precision firepower for platoon-sized infantry units. It is 2 ft long and weighs 6 lb including the carrying case and launcher, making it small and light enough for one soldier to carry. The Switchblade is folded up inside a tube with wings unfolding once it gets airborne. It can be controlled up to 6.2 mi but its small size limits its endurance to 10 minutes. This makes it unsuited for scouting roles, but it is useful for inexpensively engaging long-range targets and assisting in relieving units pinned down by enemy fire. The Switchblade uses a color camera and GPS locating to identify, track, and engage targets, as well as being able to be pre-programmed on a collision course. Its warhead has an explosive charge equivalent to a 40mm grenade to destroy light armored vehicles and personnel. If a situation causes a strike to be called off, the operator can call off the Switchblade and re-target it. The aircraft is propelled by an electric engine, so its small size and silent flight makes it extremely difficult to detect or try to intercept, enabling it to close in on a target at 85 knots (98 mph). The Switchblade uses the same Ground Control Station (GCS) as other AeroVironment UAVs including the Wasp, RQ-11 Raven, and RQ-20 Puma. This creates commonality and the potential for teaming of longer-endurance small UAVs to recon for targets, then having the Switchblade attack once they are identified with the same controller.
U.S. Army regulations categorize the Switchblade as a missile rather than a drone, and the term "loitering munition" is preferred to describe it; unlike UAVs, it is not recoverable once launched. The Switchblade uses daytime and infrared cameras, as well as an "aided target tracker" to lock on to stationary and moving targets. The warhead is specifically designed for controlled firepower to reduce collateral damage through a focused blast, having a forward-firing shotgun-blast effect rather than a 360-degree blast, throwing pellets on the same vector that the missile itself is traveling; it can also be fused to detonate at a predetermined height, which can be adjusted in-flight. When diving, the air vehicle gives the operator the opportunity to wave off until four seconds from impact, and the warhead can be detonated in-flight to destroy it. Being unique in its abilities, the Switchblade does not fit into several established doctrines, not being an armed reconnaissance vehicle dispatched by a platoon commander to scout over an area and destroy enemies, or an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform, as its cameras are for seeing targets instead of performing recon. There is also the question of whether small squads and platoons who lack high-level intelligence and communications should have the ability to fire missiles beyond ranges they are trying to influence.
Aside from being used against ground targets, SRC Inc. has written software to combine the Switchblade with sensors to be able to intercept other hostile UAVs. The Switchblade is used alongside an existing counter-artillery radar and IED jamming system, all of which can be towed by Humvees. Interception of an enemy drone occurs in layers of defenses: if a drone gets through covering jet fighters or is too small to be targeted by them, it is picked up by the fire-finding radar; once detected, the jammer performs electronic warfare to break its data-link; if the drone resists EW, the Switchblade is launched to physically impact and destroy it.
On 28 April 2016, AeroVironment announced they had developed an upgrade for the Switchblade Tactical Missile system designated Block 10C. It incorporates a Digital Data Link (DDL) to provide a stable and secure encrypted communication link through more efficient use of existing frequency bands and significantly reduced likelihood of signal interception, as well as enables concurrent operation of multiple Switchblade systems in the same vicinity without signal conflict, gives opportunity to extend operational ranges using another DDL arbiter such as a different AeroVironment UAV, and facilitates sensor to shooter operations through automatic communication of mission plans from one AeroVironment UAS to a Switchblade.
The Switchblade was originally conceived by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) before being picked up by the Army. It was first unveiled in August 2011 to fill a gap U.S. troops were facing in Afghanistan. If insurgents ambushed a patrol, options available to push back the attacks were limited. Close air support takes time to arrive, is expensive to conduct, and risks collateral damage if in urban areas. If the troops are out of range of artillery support, guided missiles like the FGM-148 Javelin are available, but also very expensive. Another problem was that small man-portable UAVs like the Raven or Puma that can spot threats have no way of quickly engaging them because available weapons are too heavy for them to carry. The Switchblade combines the man-portability, low-cost, and recon ability of small UAVs with an explosive warhead to quickly locate and destroy enemy fighters, especially in dug-in positions like rooftops or ridge lines. On 29 July 2011, the U.S. Army awarded AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract for "rapid fielding" an unspecified number of Switchblades to forces in Afghanistan. On 20 March 2012, the Army awarded a contract modification to the company of $5.1 million, totaling a $10 million order for Switchblade UAVs.
In May 2012, the United States Marine Corps began the process of ordering the Switchblade UAV to enable an organic ability to engage targets like improvised explosive device (IED) emplacement teams. Usually when air support is called in, attackers slip away before a large UAV, attack helicopter, fighter-bomber, or quick reaction force can arrive on station. Marines sometimes couldn't get support due to other units getting mission priority. The Switchblade is small enough to fit in a Marine's ALICE pack and locks onto and tracks a target once selected.
75 Switchblades were supplied to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2012. It was awaiting final approvals for use by late October, but several successful employments had occurred by January 2013. Although the military would not confirm details about its deployment, effectiveness, distribution, or tactical employment, commanders reported that it was "very effective." Shortly after, a joint urgent needs statement was requested by the Army theater commanders for more systems. The number requested was not specified, but was "dramatically more" than the 75 systems initially supplied and exceeded budget limitations. The Switchblade gained notoriety among soldiers using it and insurgents being targeted by it. The Army classifies it as a direct fire munition rather than a drone. Soldiers embraced it as a valuable tool, especially to reduce collateral damage. Unlike most other weapons, the Switchblade can wave off or abort a mission if the situation changes after launch, allowing it to engage a secondary target or destroy itself without inflicting casualties or property damage; the wave off capability was used over a dozen times to prevent civilian casualties that could have been caused had a man not been in the loop.
From its introduction to the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, over 4,000 Switchblades were deployed in Afghanistan.
AAF/ACF Fighters: None
|Shawn Garlow in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.|
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Technical specs compiled from:
For Use of Photos by Shawn Garlow
Labels: 1-26 INF, Afghanistan, Cactus Tactical, Firebase Vegas, Korengal Valley, Kunar province, MQ-8, Operation Enduring Freedom, RQ-21, ScanEagle, Switchblade, War In Afghanistan, Weapons of War