SOCOM Steps Up Drive For Loitering Capabilities

Switchblade 300 is a back-packable and rapidly-deployable loitering missile system for use against beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) targets. Image – AeroVironment, Inc.

The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has made loitering technologies a priority in its efforts to support counter-violent extremist organization (C-VEO) operations and strategic competition.

During SOF week in Tampa, Fla., recently, Col. Anh Ha, the program executive officer Special Operations Forces (SOF) Warrior emphasized “loitering capability” over “loitering munition” in an interview with Jane’s, noting that there were numerous capabilities that could be integrated with uncrewed aircraft beyond weapons. For example, loitering platforms could in the future be equipped with electronic warfare payloads, the colonel said.

USSOCOM’s Program Executive Office SOF Warrior is actively supporting various programs focused on deploying loitering capabilities, including the Ground Organic Precision Strike System (GOPSS) that is intended to offer three levels of capability.

Echelon 2 covers crew-served or vehicle-mounted capabilities and is currently filled by Rafael’s Spike Non-Line-of-Sight (NLOS), AeroVironment’s Switchblade 600 and UVision’s Hero 120SF munitions.

Echelon 1 consists of tube-launched capabilities, including AeroVironment’s Switchblade 300 and UVision’s Hero-30FR.

Echelon 0, which is expected to be procured starting in 2024, aims to introduce vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) solutions.

The program office is also looking to add automated target recognition and extended ranges to its loitering munitions, the publication said.

AeroVironment took advantage of SOF Week to show off its Switchblade 300 Block 20 system, first unveiled on March 28, which is the successor to the Switchblade 300. The new system, already ordered by the U.S. Army, features enhanced capabilities, including high-resolution electro-optical/infrared cameras; improved digital data link; and endurance extended from 15 minutes to 20 minutes.

The Pentagon is also exploring a new hand-launched and recoverable loitering munitions. On Jan. 19, the department awarded Israel Aerospace Industries a multimillion dollar deal for its Point Blank (designated ROC-X by the Defense Dept.) loitering aircraft. IAI describes it as an electro-optically guided missile with VTOL capability that can be carried in a soldier’s backpack.

Loitering capabilities offer significant benefits for special operations. The relatively small air vehicles provide enhanced situational awareness, monitoring targets and gathering intelligence in real time, enabling precise target identification and reducing the risk of collateral damage. New missions are also envisioned, with electronic warfare payloads offering the ability to disrupt enemy communications and sensors. Furthermore, their low cost means that they are expendable.

The U.S. is not alone in pursuing loitering capabilities. China, Israel, Turkey and Russia have been developing their own capabilities, while countries such as Azerbaijan, Germany, India and South Korea have sought to acquire the technology. Given their heavy use in Ukraine, loitering capabilities are likely to continue to play an important role in future conflicts.

Sources: “USSOCOM Eyes Loitering Systems For EW, Other Functions,” Andrew White, Jane’s, May 15, 2023.

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