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Marines launch a ‘kamikaze’ drone from an Osprey aircraft

A Marine rappels from an MV-22 Osprey during a bilateral military exercise near Lisbon, Portugal, on April 10, 2015. EPA/JOAO RELVAS
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Picture this: U.S. Marines are in the middle of a helicopter raid and about to land infantrymen on the ground. However, they’re taking gunfire from an armed insurgent shooting from a well-covered position, and there’s no easy way to get him.

The Americans could open up in a situation like this with large guns and missiles from a helicopter gunship like the AH-1Z Viper, a new, souped-up version of the Super Cobra the Marines have flown for years. But they’re experimenting with another option: Flying a kamikaze drone armed with explosives from the back of an MV-22 Osprey aircraft, and directing it right into the insurgent’s fighting hole.

The Marines tested a small unmanned aircraft known as the Switchblade recently at Twentynine Palms, Calif., flying it directly at targets from both the ground and the back of the Osprey, a long-range aircraft that has rotors like a helicopter, but can fly like a plane once they rotate forward. They were “inert,” with no explosives on board, but the mission went off without a hitch, said Col. James Adams, commanding officer of Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1.

“They can kamikaze this thing into a target,” Adams said. “It’s not a huge explosive charge, but like a hand grenade explosive charge.”

The Switchblade’s utility as a kamikaze drone has been known for years. It’s made by AeroVironment, of Monrovia, Calif., a firm that has developed a number of small unmanned aircraft. But most media reports about it have focused on how ground troops could launch it at a target. It can be carried in a backpack, and has wings that flip out after it is fired from a tube, company officials say.

Here’s video demonstrating how it might work:

Marine officials said in 2012 that they found the Switchblade very accurate, and planned to send it to Afghanistan. Army units have used them there, Bloomberg News reported in 2011. The Army awarded AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract that year to field it rapidly, company officials said.