The future of war is a synergy in euphemisms, launched as a co-branding event. AeroVironment — maker of missile systems, including the one-way guided flying “switchblade” missile — announced May 7 that it is partnering with Kratos, maker of target and combat drones. The desired effect is cheap but smart drones to launch cheaper but smart missiles. It’s an attempt at answering a question that has plagued the United States since the dawn of the jet age: As the costs of piloted craft go up, can anything be done to restore a numerical advantage in the sky?
“AeroVironment tube-launched small unmanned aircraft and tactical missile systems to be integrated with Kratos high-speed, low-cost attritable drones to dramatically enhance situational awareness and system effectiveness,” reads the announcement. Switchblade is tube-launched, and it flies like a small unmanned aircraft up until the point where it hits its target and explodes. “Tactical missile system” is the formal term, though it’s also known as a kamikaze drone or a suicide drone. Its flight time is too short to lump it in with the larger category of “loitering munitions,” but they’re kindred spirits in function. As sensors got cheap and powerful and small, smart missiles with drone-like navigation systems became possible.
The high-speed low-cost attritable drone made by Kratos is the Mako, an adaptation of the company’s BQM-167 Aerial Target. Like the roughly $900,000 apiece target it’s based upon, the Mako is designed to be cheap enough that it can be fielded in numbers and replaced without straining the Pentagon’s budget. (In 2017, the combat-capable Mako was pitched as costing between $1.5 million and $2 million each. Not cheap in most senses, but relative to the going rate for a fifth-generation fighter, it’s a bargain.)
Taken together, the Switchblade and the Mako could be “attritable aerial assets,” flying things that are useful, but not so expensive that losing them drastically alters the ability of commanders to direct fights or of pilots to win them. Cheap and flying alone doesn’t win much on its own; the craft have to prove that they can actually perform the tasks assigned them.
Here, here is that crucial synergy.
Kratos and AeroVironment are working together to see if the Mako can launch, communicate with and control Switchblades. The larger drone would serve as a node in a network between a human and the airborne munition. The exact location of control, between the drone and the flying munitions and the human directing them, is unclear. Would the Switchblades seek targets based on what the Mako’s sensors could spot? Would that information get relayed to the human controller in time to approve of or call off the strike?
These are questions that can be answered in the course of a development. If the combination of drone mothership and munition wingmates works, it could reduce the overall material cost of conducting an airstrike, while likely leaving unchanged the potential human toll.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.