Blackwing, an integral ISR capability for submarines

Paolo Valpolini

“Blackwing is part of a family of cutting edge solutions that deliver precision strike at the battlefields’ edge,” Brett Hush, Senior General Manager, Product Line Management of AeroVironment Tactical Missile Systems business, tells the audience. “It is an innovative tube-launched small UAS that delivers rapid response Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities,” he adds. The Blackwing can be deployed by a submerged submarine and can be used in underwater-to-air delivery canisters, but can also be deployed from surface ships and ground mobility vehicles Hush explains. “It is packed with advanced military avionics and sensors to accomplish its mission, that is providing actionable intelligence to the operator,” Hush says.

The Blackwing programme goes back to the Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS against Mobile targets (AWESUM), a Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration programme launched in 2013 aimed at providing the US Navy with a new set of ISR capabilities. On September 29, 2017 the Navy filed an over 2.5 million US$ contract to AeroVironment for continuation and expansion of the programme, for deliveries in Q3-Q4 2018, the Blackwing being now operational on board US submarines.

The Blackwing architecture relies upon that of the Switchblade thus featuring foldable tandem wings fitted to the 76.2 mm diameter fuselage, the air vehicle length being of 495 mm including the propeller at the rear that is powered by an electric motor. The wingspan is 686 mm, the tail plane span being marginally smaller. The launch weight is of just 1.81 kg, the payload consisting of a miniaturised electro-optical daylight sensor and a night IR sensor. “The Blackwing is fitted with on board Inertial Navigation System and Global Positioning System, allowing it to fly a precise flight path to the target location,” Hush adds. Operators receive real-time images thanks to the wideband digital data link, which can also be used as a tactical data relay for UAS or UUV: “the Blackwing can create its own network in the middle of the Ocean, connecting surface ships to undersea assets,” Hush explains. No data were provided about range and endurance, but considering that the system is a close derivative of the Switchblade 300 these should be similar, the ground launched loitering munition having a 10 km range and 15 minutes endurance.

The Blackwing can be launched not only from submarines, but also from surface ships as well as from ground vehicles, either using the launch tube or via a MultiPack Launcher (MPL). Developed both for the Blackwing and the Switchblade 300 loitering munition, the MPL is 0.91 meters deep and tall and 0.76 meters wide, its empty weight being 59 kg, which becomes 72.5 kg when loaded with six munitions. Power is usually provided by the ship electric system, the remote cable allowing to control it from the ship combat information centre, however the launcher can also operate secured to the deck without further integration into the vessel. Reload takes less than 30 seconds per round.

Looking ahead, AeroVironment officials stated that modularity would allow the introduction of a lethal payload at some time, although the company could not discuss that capability in detail.