The Biden administration is supplying Ukraine with the U.S.-made ‘Switchblades’ drones, a loitering munition system that can accurately target Russian tanks and artillery positions from miles away, according to a senior American lawmaker.
Following the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual address to the US Congress on March 16th, Biden announced a new $800 million military aid package for Ukraine, which will include 100 ‘Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems’, among other things.
“The United States and our allies and partners are fully committed to surging weapons of assistance to the Ukrainians, and more will be coming as we source additional stocks of equipment that we’re ready to transfer,” Biden said.
Shortly after Biden’s announcement, Republican Congressman and a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul told Politico that the US is sending Switchblade drones to Ukraine as part of the $800 million package.
There are two variants of the Switchblade drone – Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600 – produced by AeroVironment, an American defense contractor headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
The Switchblade loitering munition system enables its operator to engage beyond-line-of-sight targets across land, maritime and air-launched scenarios. They are called ‘Switchblade’ because of their bladelike wings that roll out on launch.
The Switchblade 300
The Switchblade 300 weighs 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg), including the warhead; has a range of 10 km and an endurance of 15 minutes. The company says that the entire system can be set up in less than two minutes.
The UAV has cameras onboard but is often used in conjunction with a mini surveillance drone for better battlefield awareness. The two drones are integrated with sensor-to-shooter software that enables instant transfer of target coordinates from the surveillance drone to the Switchblade 300.
It is designed for pinpoint strikes and has a remarkable feature called “waved off” capability to prevent collateral damage. For example, the operator can adjust the blast radius so the drone kills only the driver of a vehicle but not a passenger. According to AeroVironment, the weapon can be waved off up to two seconds before the impact. The drone costs as little as $6,000, by some estimates.
Reports suggest, the U.S. military has used the Switchblade 300 in combat under limited circumstances in Afghanistan and elsewhere but has not publicized that fact but if they were to be supplied to Ukraine that could be the most significant use of the weapon in combat to date.
Wahid Nawabi, AeroVironment’s Afghan-born CEO said he had been told that the Taliban and other enemies were targeted by the Switchblade 300 drone, referred to it as an angry bird or a buzzing bee.
The Extended-Range Variant
The Switchblade 600 is an extended range variant with a range of 40 km. It weighs 120 pounds (54.4 kg) and is equipped with a dual electro-optical and infrared sensor suite.
With an endurance of 40 minutes, it can be used against larger, hardened targets via an anti-armor warhead and does not need external surveillance or fire assets. The company claims that the entire system can be assembled in less than 10 minutes.
The “wave-off and recommit” capability of this drone allows operators to abort the mission at any time and then re-engage either the same or other targets multiple times.
In March 2021, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) awarded a $26 Million contract to AeroVironment for delivery and integration of Switchblade 600 tactical missile systems into specialized maritime platforms.
Both Switchblade variants can be launched using a tube launcher and carried in a backpack. They fly much faster than the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that the Ukrainian forces are currently using to inflict damage on Russian tanks and other armored vehicles, and they would presumably be able to penetrate the spotty air defenses Russia is maintaining over its forces.
That said, questions remain about how many of the Switchblade systems the US has in its stockpiles and how fast AeroVironment can manufacture new ones, and how much training Ukrainians would require to operate the systems.
The United Kingdom is the only foreign country that so far has been authorized to purchase the Switchblade.
Sending the older Switchblade 300 still in the U.S. military arsenal might be one of the easiest options, rather than acquiring and delivering the latest variant of that type or of the larger Switchblade 600.
Nevertheless, Switchblades of any type will be a significant boost for Ukrainian forces fighting a larger and better equipped Russian military. These weapons would help with the hit-and-run tactics employed by the Ukrainian troops against their Russian adversaries.