US deploys pint-sized drones in Afghanistan

The new drones christened `Switchblade` weigh less than six pounds and take out a sniper on a rooftop without blasting the building.

Updated: Jun 13, 2012, 17:00 PM IST

Washington: The US military has issued to soldiers in Afghanistan pint-sized drones, small enough to be carried in backpacks, but used in battlefield in place of airstrikes, as reports said that Washington had given the nod to CIA to step up strikes on militants in Pakistan.

The weapon dubbed the `Flying Shotgun` has been sent to troops battling Taliban militants close to the border with Pakistan, a US media report said.

The drones are small enough to fit in soldiers` rucksacks, but packed with tiny explosive warheads, enough to blast targets with pinpoint accuracy.

The new drone christened `Switchblade` weighs less than six pounds and takes out a sniper on a rooftop without blasting the building and Pentagon has given the go ahead for deployment of these mini killer machines, Los Angeles Times reported quoting Pentagon officials.

The deployment of Switchblades has been made a top priority by Pentagon as Washington is seeking to reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other battle zones.

The weapon was tested last year by special operations units and has also been widely tested by the US Army, Marines and Air Force.

The paper said the US Army had placed orders with manufacturers for these mini killer machines worth USD 100 million under a programme called Lethal Miniature Areal Munition System.

The deployment of mini killer drones comes, LA Times said, amid reports of the Obama administration giving a nod to CIA to step up drone strikes in Pakistan.

Angry over Islamabad`s refusal to crack down on Haqqani network militants who cross into Afghanistan, the US is approving strikes that it might have vetoed before, the paper said.

The new Switchblade drone enables soldiers in the field to identify and destroy targets much more quickly by eliminating the need to call in a strike from large drones that may be hundreds of miles away.

Errant drone strikes have been blamed for killing and injuring scores of civilians throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, giving the US government a black eye as it targets elusive terrorist groups.

The Predator and Reaper drones deployed in these regions typically carry 100-pound laser-guided Hellfire missiles or 500-pound GPS-guided smart bombs that can reduce buildings to smouldering rubble. "This is a precision strike weapon that causes as minimal collateral damage as possible," said William I Nichols, who led the Army`s testing effort of the Switchblades at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama.

The two-foot-long Switchblade is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier`s rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it.

When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the "kamikaze drone".

The switchblade is designed for use by small ground units who need to attack nearby targets - snipes on a ridge, rebels on a rooftop or an ambush.

Like much of the drone war, the deployment of the switchblade is kept secret. The US military refuses to acknowledge how many of these mini drones are in stock and in which countries they are deployed.

While drone strikes from fixed-wing aircraft have a chain of command that stretches from Afghanistan to the US, these ultra-light, portable drones bring the decision to kill down to the level of platoon commanders or even individual soldiers.