The United States will be sending 100 AeroVironment Switchblade loitering munitions to Ukraine to help counter Russian ground forces. The idea of the United States supplying Ukraine with loitering munitions, also referred to as suicide or kamikaze drones, was talked about and mulled over since the start of the invasion, as the weapons systems would help give a tactical edge in targeting infantry and armor, as well as filling a gap in Ukraine’s arsenal.
Ukraine, like many other countries, had begun domestic research and development of loitering munitions several years ago. Systems such as the RAM and RAM II were developed and battle tested in eastern Ukraine against separatist forces by 2018, but in a very limited capacity and they failed to gain any widespread adoption. Following the success and effectiveness of loitering munitions in a conventional warfare setting during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the need for increased loitering munition capabilities rose dramatically amongst militaries globally. By December 2021, the Ukraine military considered making specialized loitering munition squads, Ukrainian military news outlet Militarnyi reported, however, Ukraine still did not have a model, neither domestically or foreign produced, to implement in their armed forces. Before the procurement of Turkish TB-2 UCAVs, much of Ukraines combat drone capacity consisted of commercially available drones, such as DJI Mavics and Phantoms, that had been outfitted with mechanisms to drop various types of small grenades and munitions. While effective against static infantry positions, weaponized drones such as these are not well suited against armored vehicles or buildings.
Note: DJI Mavics and Phantoms with dropper mechanisms are not technically loitering munitions as the drones are meant to be reused. If the purpose of the drones was to detonate itself after locating a target, then it would match the description.
Switchblades have been around for a decade and have already seen combat use, mostly by United States special forces in Afghanistan. The systems filled a capability gap that dealt with time, money, and effectiveness. Faster than close air support, cheaper than javelins, and with the added bonus of reduced chance collateral damage, the Switchblade provided American warfighters with an extremely portable and precision weapon that could be used in an array of tactical situations. The Switchblade also allowed for “sensor to shooter” capabilities, meaning that it could be integrated with existing ISR drones, such as Puma and Raven systems, to quickly receive information on target positions and streamline engagement. Essentially an ISR drone identifies a target, relays to position to the Switchblade, and the operator chooses to engage or not engage. These drones can be controlled remotely, using real time cameras and GPS to identify, track, and engage targets, by a “tap to target” coordinate system through handheld tablets/ laptops, or autonomously on its own. The Switchblade also has a “wave off” feature, allowing for an operator to abort a target and either choose another one, wait, or have the drone self-destruct. This feature has been proven to reduce collateral damage in the field, as strikes have been aborted due to nearby civilians.
There are two Switchblade models available with two separate use cases:
The first is the Switchblade 300. Utilizing an explosive payload similar to that of a 40mm grenade, the weapons system is primarily meant for anti-personnel operations or light vehicle targets. The 300 series has a range of 10km, maximum flight time of about 15 minutes, and a max speed of 100 mph. It is lightweight and compact, with both the launching tube and drone weighing a total of only 5.5 lbs, which means that the system is fully man-portable and can allow for additional drones to be carried at essentially no extra weight.
The second is the Switchblade 600. Unveiled in March 2020, the 600 series is similar to the Switchblade 300, but boasts a much larger payload intended for armored targets and longer flight times. While less portable than the 300s at a combined weight of 50 lbs (tube and drone), the system has a specialized anti-armor warhead. The 600 series has a range of 90+ km, maximum flight time of about 40 minutes, and a max speed of 115 mph.
It remains unclear at this time which model the United States intends on sending to Ukraine. If I were to make an educated guess, they would mostly, if not solely, be Switchblade 600s, since they are effective against both personnel and armor. Ukrainian forces could deploy them in a number of instances, such as:
- Targeting MLRS/ artillery systems to reduce shelling of frontline positions and cities.
- Targeting anti-aircraft defenses to open up drone and airstrike operations.
- Target aircraft not in use.
- Target ground forces and armor at the frontlines.
- Target command/ communications/ electronic warfare vehicles
The list can go on and on since these are very versatile systems. When it comes to places that would get priority, I would think Kyiv, since there is a large number of Russian forces to the northwest and northeast that fit all of the targets I described above. Kyiv may also be the easiest to get to and is less exposed to being targeted by Russian aircraft. However, we must wait and see. Sending 100 drones seems quite small, and it is compared to the number of other anti-tank weapons being sent over, but a little can go a long way. These drones will not be a decisive factor in the war at just 100, but they will increase Ukrainian forces reach in making precision strikes.