By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, Edge
A week and a half ago, the Biden administration announced a new $800 million package of lethal military assistance to the besieged country of Ukraine.
We now know that among the weapon systems included are 100 Switchblade loitering munitions, a kind of “piloted missile” ideal for anti-personnel strikes.
But how lethal are Switchblades and will Ukraine be able to make use of them?
It must be a glorious time to be an infantryman. Back in my day (mid-2000s) night vision was our highest tech piece of equipment. Today, grunts can launch and fly munitions, beyond line of sight, using an iPad, and strike enemy formations with silent, deadly precision.
Unlike Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) drones used across the U.S. military, the Switchblade 300 is less than 24 inches (61 centimeters) long and light enough at 5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) to fit inside a single soldier’s rucksack. It carries an explosive Northrop Grumman advanced munition large enough to kill a group of soldiers in close proximity, but not big enough to do much damage to Russian tanks.
Once the Switchblade is airborne, it has a range of approximately 10 km and can stay airborne for about 15 minutes. The munition is guided by a soldier on the ground using a tablet.
The weapon was first fielded in Afghanistan by U.S. special operations forces, but was adopted by the Army and Marine Corps, who saw value in the light, accurate munition that can help disrupt ambushes or take out lightly armored vehicles.
The company who manufactures the Switchblade, AeroVironment, Inc., says the Switchblade is virtually undetectable as it has a small physical form and a low thermal signature thanks to its electric motor. In other words, Russian soldiers on the ground won’t know they’re being stalked until a switchblade operator decides to execute a strike.
The explosive payload fires more like a shotgun in a cone pattern, rather than an omnidirectional blast. This, the company says, decreases the possibility of collateral damage and ensures that the operator hits the intended target. In addition, the explosive can be set to discharge at a specific height, so once the drone starts its final descent, the operator can fly the munition directly into his target.
The company also makes a larger version of the Switchblade (the 600 model) that can stay aloft for longer, has a longer range, and bigger payload for anti-armor applications.
Will Ukrainian soldiers be able to make use of the Switchblade effectively?
In short, yes. The type of fighting going on right now between Russian and Ukrainian forces is ideal for exactly this munition. Urban environments, poor line of sight through woodlands, and the Russian’s extremely poor battle formations make the Switchblade an ideal weapon.
Think Russian morale is low now? Just wait until Ukrainians start killing off high-ranking Russian commanders from the sky.
Even non-trained soldiers, the territorial defense force, should be able to use the Switchblade with great success as the tablet interface is easy to understand for anyone used to using smartphones or tablets. Like many drones, the Switchblade is directed by waypoint navigation, in which a human plots a path on a map and the missile, once launched, flies on its own accord.
Unlike radio-controlled devices, like today’s modern consumer video drones (think DJI’s Mavic series), the operator is simply indicating what he wants to look at while the missile flies itself.
What’s more, the operator has a “wave off” ability, for, say, the event that civilians walk into the area. The operator can call off the attack up to four seconds before detonation.
It’s unclear whether AeroVironment will be sending trainers to Kyiv, or if the Switchblade was something U.S. military trainers in Ukraine taught the Ukrainians when we still had troops on the ground in there before the current conflict.
Regardless, as the Russians continue to fumble around Ukraine, they now have one more thing to worry about: A silent, nearly invisible kamikaze drone that will start picking off field commanders in the coming weeks.
There’s no point in running away. As an old saying from my infantry days reminds us, “if you run, you’ll only die tired.”
The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.