On Wednesday, March 16 a congressional briefing revealed the U.S. 100 “Tactical Unmanned Aerial Drone Systems” included as part of an $800 million military aid package to Kyiv as it struggles against Russian invasion in fact referred to lethal Switchblade kamikaze drones.
But the term “unmanned system” doesn’t actually refer to an individual drone, but rather to a complete package of ground launch and control systems, and potentially multiple drones. And indeed according to journalist Michael Weiss, a military source indicated each Switchblade Tactical System includes ten drones.
That means Ukraine may be receiving up to a thousand single-shot suicide drones, not 100.
That said, there might also be a mix of different drone types (such as unarmed surveillance drones) within the count of 100 drone systems or even different models of the Switchblade.
Regardless, the Switchblade should offer an important new capability to promptly launch precision attacks at targets beyond the line of sight, including the big guns and rocket launchers mercilessly bombarding Ukrainian cities.
When people think of killer drones, they usually call to mind expensive Predator or Reaper UCAV-type drones slinging guided missiles at targets far below in Iraq or Afghanistan while controlled by operators on the other side of the globe.
The Switchblade, however, is a very different class of weapon: a loitering munition combining the characteristics of a drone and a missile. While remotely controllable and slower than a missile, it’s much smaller and cheaper than a typical drone and designed to fly a one-way trip smashing itself into a target.
There are two Switchblade models, the ultra-portable Switchblade 300 and the heftier anti-tank capable Switchblade 600. While the latter would have even more applications for Ukrainian forces, the former remains useful too. It’s not clear which the U.S. is sending, but given the numbers involved and the fact that the 600 only entered the market in 2021, it seems likely Ukraine is getting mostly, or only, Switchblade 300s.
The 300 model first began combat tests with the U.S. military in Afghanistan late in 2012, where it received high marks. The 5.5-pound drone comes packed in a two-foot tube and is fired into the air like a mortar, after which the drone pops out two sets of rectangular wings and its electrically-driven pusher propeller whirs into motion.
The Switchblade can be remotely piloted using the same ground control station already used for RQ-11 Raven drones integrated into U.S. infantry companies. The Switchblade itself can locate targets thanks to its color day camera and night infrared sight system. However, it only has battery to stay airborne for 10-15 minutes, or out to a range of 6.2 miles while cruising at 63 miles per hour, though it can surge to 100 with less efficiency.
Once the operator spots an appropriate target, he can “lock” the Switchblade onto it to perform a kamikaze attack, and set its fuse to detonate at the desired altitude. Due to its quiet motor, it’s difficult to hear approaching.
If while the drone plunges towards its target, the operator spots anything that changes his mind—such as the presence of nearby civilians—he can abort the attack even just 2-4 seconds prior to detonation.
Indeed, during initial small-scale combat tests of the Switchblade, attacks were reportedly aborted “more than a dozen times”, which gives one a grim idea of how often guided weapons operators have cause for second thoughts after releasing their weapons.
Another feature of the Switchblade is that it uses a small directional munition comparable in size to a 40mm grenade which explodes in a shotgun spray forward from the drone, rather than affecting a radius around the point of detonation, limiting risks of collateral damage.
The latest Block 10C model of the Switchblade 300 includes a new digital datalink, which is less vulnerable to signal interception/jamming by hostile forces and allows multiple Switchblades to be used in the same area without conflicting.
Allegedly, each Switchblade 300 costs just $6,000, a very low cost for a guided munition, though some contract awards seemingly imply a price more than eleven times higher. That may reflect the cost of the complete system, ie. one control station and ten drones.
The small kamikaze drone is also being tested as an anti-drone weapon, or from launch aircraft, including a conceptual long-range drone-launching “mothership” which could release a swarm of Switchblades to overwhelm defenses.
Back on the ground, there are also 160-pound multipack launchers loaded with six Switchblades being deployed by the U.S. Army for base defense. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy is looking to deploy a submarine-launched variant called Blackwing for surveillance missions.
The Switchblade 300 warhead is too small to reliably disable armored vehicles or other hardened targets. That’s where the larger Switchblade 600 comes in.
Weighing 50 pounds, the Switchblade 600 can theoretically reach targets as far away as 50-56 miles, and has a maximum endurance of 40 minutes, though the command link may presently be limited to around 25 miles bar further upgrades.
From 25 miles away, that leaves 20 minutes of ‘loiter time’ to acquire target using a gimbaled camera with two-axis stabilization. The 600-model is also slightly faster, with a 70 mile per hour cruising speed and 115 mph dash speed.
It also sports a secure encrypted communication link and spoofing-resistant GPS. A new touch screen tablet interface allows the operator to designate targets with a tap.
Crucially, the Switchblade 600 reportedly has a multi-purposed shaped charge warhead allegedly similar to the Javelin missile’s 19-pound tandem-warhead, which can penetrate 600-750 millimeters RHA equivalent armor . Like a Javelin, a kamikaze drone could be piloted to slam into the thinner top armor of a tank.
What use are kamikaze drones to Ukrainian forces?
Ukrainian forces have done superbly well ambushing Russian troops, but such tactics can’t prevent howitzers, mortars and rocket artillery systems situated many miles away behind enemy lines from raining death and destruction upon Ukrainian cities. True, Ukrainian artillery can retaliate using counter-battery radars to plot fires, but overreliance on this method isn’t ideal given finite ammunition supplies, especially in besieged cities, and the risks of exposing artillery positions.
Loitering munitions therefore would enable Ukrainian troops to use the same system to both pinpoint indirect fire systems and promptly and precisely attempt to destroy them. All while the launcher/controller remains concealed out of sight of retaliatory fires.
With the Switchblade 300, ideal targets might include mortar nests, towed howitzers and other heavy weapons, forward command posts, and soft-skinned or lightly armored vehicles, particularly those laden with ammunition or fuel. Against armored vehicles, the little drones might be able to disable external systems, but the odds of destroying a vehicle outright might be low.
To the 300 model’s 6-mile maximum range, teams could infiltrate closer to Russian bivouacs and supply lines to launch hit-and-run attacks. Ukrainian forces are already performing such attacks with Javelin missiles, but Switchblades could allow them to do so from a safer distance while remaining out of the enemy’s line of sight.
Using Switchblade 600s, the range and applicable target set expand greatly to encompass all kinds of armored personnel carriers, air defense vehicles, higher-level command posts (especially when visited by senior officers) and powerful artillery systems usually kept well behind the frontline. The 600 could also be used to strike landed helicopters, boats, and landing craft.
While it seems less likely Ukraine will receive the Switchblade 600, potentially a thousand single-use kamikaze drones could still do a great deal of damage to vulnerable rear-area targets. As Russia’s indirect fire capabilities are likely responsible for the majority of the Ukrainian military and civilian casualties, improving Kyiv’s ability to strike such forces from afar without putting troops directly in the line of fire has great potential.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring, and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.