According to two people familiar with the decision, the Pentagon intends to order and send to Ukraine ten of the latest model Switchblade drones armed with tank-busting warheads, in addition to previously announced deliveries of a less powerful version.
As various people were also familiar with the plans, the new Switchblade-600 weapons are part of the $300 million in lethal military assistance announced by the Pentagon Friday night, which will be contracted directly from industry rather than removed from existing inventories.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed on Tuesday that anti-tank drones will be sent to Ukraine as part of the armament. “Unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Switchblade UAV, which is a higher level of technology, but provides them with additional capacity to pursue armored formations,” Austin said of the latest round of weapons being sent to Kyiv.
On March 16, the White House announced that it would provide 100 Switchblade drones as part of a $800 million package of weapons and equipment from US inventories. Those systems, however, are variants of the “300 series,” 2.5-kilo drones designed to target personnel and light vehicles.
According to a fact sheet prepared by AeroVironment Inc., the drones’ manufacturer, they can fly about 10 kilometers and stay on a target for about 15 minutes. The new model, weighing about 23 kilograms and manufactured by a company based in Simi Valley, California, can fly more than 39 kilometers and wander for 40 minutes before launching an anti-armor attack.
The drone operator employs a fire control system on a tablet-based touch screen, with the option of manually piloting the missile. Since it was secretly delivered to Afghanistan in 2010 for use against the Taliban, the first version of the dive-bombing drone has been in the arsenal of US commandos. It’s been dubbed a “flying shotgun” by army officers.
We have received no reports of Switchblade being used in Ukraine. Switchblade has always been kept under wraps: thousands have been used in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but virtually no information or video of the weapon in action has ever been released.
However, the combination of drones and loitering munitions will be a major feature of future warfare, with Russia set to receive the first live tests. Whether we know about it or not, the Puma-Switchblade teams will be making a difference.
UPDATE: The Pentagon has confirmed that the new batch will also include ten Switchblade 600 models, which are a much larger version of the loitering munition. When the Switchblade 600 was released in 2020, we took a look at it.
This is a 50-pound weapon, not a 5-pound weapon, with a range of more than 50 miles. It also has a much larger warhead, which is said to have similar effects to a Javelin missile. In other words, it is capable of destroying the most powerful Russian tanks. Again, the 600 can be used in conjunction with Puma drones to ensure that only the most valuable targets are found and hit and that no Switchblade is wasted.