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Switchblade Drones: Ukraine’s Angels of Death

Written by Liam Bird

Let’s start by setting the scene. You’re an American naval gunner; the date is October 25th, 1944 and World War Two has been dragging on for five long years, you have been in the war for going on three. The war is going well for you, bloody, but well and the Battle of Leyte Gulf is currently the focus of the Pacific, the largest naval battle in history. Japan is losing and everyone knows it. However, they are getting desperate. 

Your ship, the St Lo, is an American escort carrier that is in a support role but still a vital one. Suddenly around noon, the call comes in, 24 Japanese planes spotted on the horizon. At first, you’re confused, 24? What can they hope to achieve with 24 planes? Then you realise, they aren’t even dive bombers or torpedo bombers, they’re fighters. But what can a fighter achieve against an aircraft carrier? Then you see one of the planes, it doesn’t open fire nor does it take any evasive action, you realize it’s on a direct course for your ship. Moments later 100 Americans would die in the first Kamikaze attack in modern history, a moment that would change warfare for the rest of time.  

Today we’ll be looking at the latest innovation in Kamikaze tactics. The biggest cost in Kamikaze tactics is the loss of life, but what is the loss when your Kamikaze is mechanical? Today we’ll be discussing the AeroVironment Switchblade “Kamikaze” Drone, or as others have referred to it, Ukraine’s deadliest weapon. 

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/us-marine-sgt-kevin-ware-launches-a-small-unmanned-c02faf

Background 

Leaving the intro to this post behind, the Switchblade drone isn’t exactly inspired by the Kamikazes of World War Two, at least not officially. They were designed by the American company AeroVironment on instructions given to them by the United States Air Force Strategic Operations Command (AFSOC) and were designed to provide US special forces with an additional eye in the sky. Their very own practical killstreak in a sense.  

In 2011, when the drones were originally conceived by AFSOC, the US was stuck in a bitter war in Afghanistan. The unique problems posed to them by that environment are the immediate reasons that led to the development of the Switchblade. Those problems being: 

  • Firstly, the American forces often found themselves fighting in mountainous terrain, being ambushed by foes unseen. This terrain made it very difficult to get air support to troops who needed it, it wasn’t as simple as working out what direction and flying, as the pilots would also need to account for elevation to ensure they didn’t accidentally arrive in the side of a mountain. 
  • Secondly, the American’s answer to anti-tank weapons, the FGM-148 Javelin, was deemed too inefficient. One Javelin costs around $216,717 with an additional $249,700 per missile you require; for comparison the Switchblade costs $6,000 per unit. The Javelins also worked off an infrared guidance system which faced many problems in the mountains that were mentioned before. The final issue with Javelins was just how huge they were, any soldier using a Javelin was required to drop their guard just to set the thing up, normally there would also be the need for another soldier just to assist in the aiming process. It was deemed that the Javelin simply wasn’t worth nearly half a million dollars a shot when most of its targets were just small buildings or trucks, no big tanks like it had been designed for.  

At this time in the US military, the appropriately named MQ-9 Reaper had been in service for around 10 years. The Reaper was the UAV (unmanned autonomous vehicle) that had replaced much of the old close air support aircraft used by the United States Air Force (USAF). This is where AFSOC got their ideas, what if instead of carrying an unwieldy weapon that would lose signal every five seconds, they instead supplied each operator with their own personal Reaper.  

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/an-mq-9-reaper-performs-a-low-pass-during-a-first-ever-d9128b

The idea of human-portable UAVs wasn’t new either; AeroVironment had also designed the RQ-11 Raven and the RQ-20 Puma, both designed to provide a spotting role for forces on the ground, neither equipped with any weapons though. This history in the field is what drew AFSOC to AeroVironment, resulting in the awarding of a $4.9 million contract on the 29th of July 2011, later subsidized with a further $5.1 Million on the 20th of March 2012, with the aim for “rapid fielding” of a “withheld amount” of Switchblades to Afghanistan.  

For comparison, the Javelin cost upwards of $30 million to develop over the course of 10 years. 

Early Deployments to Afghanistan 

The earliest orders of the Switchblade were made in May 2012, ordered by the United States Marine Corps (USMC) to allow troops to strike improvised explosive devices, (IEDs) emplaced positions and other similar targets. For comparison, prior to this, they would be forced to wait upwards of 30 minutes for air support to arrive to help with an emplaced position or in the case of an IED wait even longer for a specialised minesweeping team. The Switchblade was their little “Apache in their pocket.” Which was quite literal as, it was small enough to fit into a Marines ALICE or MOLLE packs. (The Harness with all the pockets and Backpack respectively) 

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/master-sgt-bobby-bullard-from-hhb-3rd-battalion-320th-field-artillery-regiment-04bc2d

At an undisclosed date in late 2012, 75 more Switchblades were supplied to US soldiers in Afghanistan, it was confirmed that “several successful employments” had occurred by January 2013. Unfortunately, with this being the US military, details of the exact nature of these deployments have been classified, never one to share the details of their super top secret special forces operations. Despite that, we can be sure that the US military liked what they were seeing because shortly after this confirmation in 2013 the US military disclosed that they would be ordering a “not specified” amount. What was specified was that this amount was “dramatically more” than the previous 75 systems that had been ordered.  

At this point you might be wondering as to why we don’t know more about this drone, we see posts of the bigger Reaper’s strikes all the time, why is that? Well, the USAF has a policy to disclose the post from as many drones strikes as possible, this is to counteract the idea that they are just using killer robots in randomized decentralized violence. The Switchblade does not come under this policy however as it is not deemed a drone, because of its small handheld nature, and that it is directly controlled by the soldier who launches it, it is deemed a direct fire munition rather than a drone, like the Javelins who came before it.  

There is one other clear advantage to the Switchblade which was recognized early on in Afghanistan though. In normal military deployments, an airstrike will rarely be called off, the fuel an asset burns to get to a combat area is generally so great that they are encouraged to find a target at all costs, in comparison the cost of the Switchblade is so low in comparison that the military is relatively fine with disposing of a drone if it turns out that there isn’t an actually valid target. To further compound this, AeroVironment have equipped all Switchblades with a self-destruct mechanism, meaning if a target is actually identified to be a civilian or the urgent target changes then the drone can be easily disposed of without causing needless civilian casualties.  

On 28th December 2014, Operation Enduring Freedom, the military name for the war in Afghanistan, came to an end; 4,000 Switchblades had been deployed in Afghanistan over those two years. It has never been commented by the US military as to what effect the Switchblade had, but we know from interviews given by US troops that the drones became a vital resource used by everyone ranging from the frontline foot troops to the special forces’ operators. The Switchblade truly became “man’s best friend.” 

Post-Afghanistan Developments 

In April 2015, the USMC test-fired a Switchblade drone out of the back of an MV-22 Osprey helicopter, with the intent of the test being to see whether the Switchblade would be a viable air-to-air weapon, specifically for combating hostile helicopters. It was expected that the drone would fail due to the high speed experienced at the moment of launch, which was not the case, the Switchblade not only successfully launched but managed to hit its test target. Later in mid-2017, 350 Switchblades were delivered to the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) for use against the so-called Islamic State.  

https://flic.kr/p/7ZkWpL

Now, at this point you may be asking, Simon you’ve got a long way into a MegaProject’s post without telling us the technical details of this dangerous weapon of war. Well to you, my adoring reader, I refer you back to the previous statement as to how much the US military likes keeping its secrets. In October 2016, AeroVironment upgraded the original Switchblades. We know very little about the original design, for this reason. 

After this 2015 upgrade, Switchblades were now referred to as Switchblade 300s which is also the name of the pre-2015 upgrades but they never chose to differentiate between the two in name. In 2016 a Multi-Pack Launcher (MPL) was designed. This is an autonomous system which can carry multiple Switchblades to a location and launch them remotely, the MPL can even be constructed in a smaller form and placed in a backpack. The final update to the Switchblade 300 was given in 2020, AeroVironment announced a joint project with Kratos Defence and Security Solutions to design a new “high-speed, long-range unnamed combat air vehicle,” with the expressed purpose of carrying large numbers of Switchblade 300s into a combat zone. However, we have yet to hear anything of this Terminator-esque nightmare weapon.  

The final points of note on the development of the Switchblade drone, before we get to the technical details and modern usages, came on the 31st of March 2021. AeroVironment was awarded $26.1 million by SOCOM for the new and improved Switchblade 600, this model was designed specifically to meet the requirements posed by the United States Naval Special Warfare Command’s (USNSWC) Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE) requirements. This meant in short that it was now qualified to be placed upon and take out warships. In this capacity, it met both Combatant Craft Medium (CCM) and Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH) ratings, meaning that all manners of warships can both host the weapon system and be targets for the system.  

Finally, on the 24th of February 2022, Russia launched what it is calling a ‘special military operation’ and what everyone else is calling an ‘invasion’ of Ukraine. As a result, the United States provided 100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems, each carrying ten Switchblade 600s to the Ukrainian government. 

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/a-hunter-joint-tactical-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-uav-in-flight-during-a-combat-686fed

The Specifications 

There are two Switchblades in service, the Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600.  However, the US military has never publicly confirmed much about the details of either drone, as such the details are a bit sketchy and we know very little about the distinction between the Switchblade 300 before and after it was upgraded in 2016. As such, take the details we cover here with a little bit of salt as most are gathered from an examination of online posts of the debris of the drones. 

The Switchblade 300 is 2.5 kg, 49.5 cm long and 76 mm in diameter; for comparison the 600 is 24.7 kg, 130 cm long and 150 mm in diameter. The 300 has an operational range of 10km and the 600 of 40km and even though we don’t know the absolute flight ceiling of either, we can guess that they probably can’t go above 150 meters due to their size. On top of this, the maximum speed of the 300 is 160 km/h or 100 mph and the 600 is 185km/h or 115 mph, for comparison, generally, the fastest civilian drones on the market can only make 70 mph. Both can either be launched by an individual or a specialized launch system, the specialized launched systems can range from specialist backpacks to specialist mortars or trucks equipped with the launch systems, although it is noted that handheld launching is not recommended for the 600. 

The 300 can remain in flight for no more than 10 minutes and the 600 no more than 40. We know a lot more about the 300’s armament capacity. It is guided by GPS and a colour camera to identify, track, and engage a whole range of targets, but can also be pre-programmed to locate and engage targets using its onboard Computer Processor Unit (CPU). The explosive is generally considered to be equivalent to a 40mm grenade, so it is fairly unsuitable in taking out bigger or heavily armoured vehicles. It is equipped with an electric engine and so makes very little sound and provides next to no silhouette on most radars thanks to its size, making the 300 a silent killer, perfect for the special forces roles we have mentioned at several points. The control system for the 300 is referred to through the uninventive name, the Ground Control System (GCS), this is effectively a rather bulky laptop. Important the GCS of the 300 is the same as the RQ-11 Raven and RQ-20 Puma, both scouting drones also designed by AeroVironment. This can enable a single operator to use the scouting drones to locate a target and then deploy a 300 to engage the target.  

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/us-marine-corps-lance-cpl-austin-mitchell-an-089754

The modern 300 is referred to as a “loitering munition” by the US military, a categorization given to missiles which means that the data and posts that the military stores of the strikes do not ever have to be revealed to the public. When the 300 is instead given a pre-programmed course and pre-programmed target it uses both daytime and infrared trackers to identify and engage their target, this enables them to lock on to both stationary and moving targets. This means that the 300 can effectively carry out every stage of a military operation, it can be launched from an autonomous MPL, independently target according to its parameters, and independently make the decision to engage a target.   

The aforementioned munitions are designed for precision strikes however, rather than being a generic 360-degree blast they are designed to instead give a forward-firing shotgun-blast effect, this is aimed to decrease civilian casualties and further specializes the 300 towards the more special forces type missions.  

The most recent and widely used innovation of the Switchblade 300 is in an anti-drone capacity, the most recent upgrade has equipped the 300 with software capable of identifying and tracking drones. This version of the 300 has also been equipped with radar jamming systems with the hope that being that these specialized 300s can be used to eliminate the threat posed by any enemy drones. A variant of the 300 is also currently being developed to specifically counteract artillery munitions, although little is known about that exact process, right now.  The final thing we know is that each 300 has a Digital Data Link (DDL) module installed as of the Block 10C upgrade in 2016 which means each drone provides a stable and secure encrypted communication link with solely its launch platform. However, this system also allows a Switchblade to change launch platforms, meaning a 300 launched by one individual can be given over to a separate launch platform, allowing for a sort of daisy chaining of munitions.  

Much less is known about the 600, we know that it has a much-improved range, duration, and warhead. Warheads are compared closely to the anti-tank munition used in the aforementioned Javelin. We also do not know the cost of the Switchblade 600, but we do know it is considerably more than the $6,000 of the 300. The 600 can be launched by individual personnel but is generally preferred to be launched from specially designed launch systems. The warhead on the 600 is rated to take out all manners of craft ranging from heavily armoured tanks to naval warships, the effectiveness of this was considered questionable though… until Ukraine.  

The final notable variant is the Switchblade 300 Blackwing, as mentioned this is the unarmed variant, although that does not mean civilian. This variant is designed to be capable of being launched from all manners of naval ships including submerged submarines, this is the type of Switchblade we know the very least amount. However, it has been guessed that it may be used for wider command and control operations, such as relaying signals to troops on the ground or even controlling other Switchblades.  

Ukraine 

No post on the Switchblade would be complete without mentioning Ukraine, as mentioned the United States supplied 1,000 Switchblade 600s to Ukraine in early March 2022. Up until this point it was unknown as to how effective the 600s would be compared to their counterparts and as many who have been watching the situation can tell you, the 600 has proved to be far more effective than anybody expected.  

It is widely through the recent war in Ukraine where the drones have achieved their now widely recognized name of “suicide drone” or “Kamikaze drones.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been primarily (so far) an armoured offensive, with both the Belarusian and Russian armies widely relying on armoured vehicles which the 600 has proved deadly effective against, reportedly being capable of slicing through the armour of modern Russian tanks like a hot knife through a babushka doll. This is not all though, there have been two strikes of particular relevance where Switchblades have been used.  

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%97%D1%83%D1%81%D1%82%D1%80%D1%96%D1%87_%D0%9F%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B7%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%82%D0%B0_%D0%A3%D0%BA%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%97%D0%BD%D0%B8_%D0%B7_%D0%94%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B6%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%BC_%D1%81%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%82%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%BC_%D1%96_%D0%BC%D1%96%D0%BD%D1%96%D1%81%D1%82%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BC_%D0%BE%D0%B1%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%B8_%D0%A1%D0%A8%D0%90_01.jpg

The first was a strike in Kharkiv Oblast, Russians had captured a bunker position in the area and were using it as a command post. Post emerged early in the war of a Switchblade striking the area, where it appears nobody was injured in the blast but we know it was a Switchblade as the Russian military was able to recover the drone. This is where we get our first piece of very interesting information, despite the fact that the US admitted to supplying 1000 Switchblade 600s, this drone was a Switchblade 300, implying that more Kamikaze drones may be in use than otherwise thought. The post of this incident may be found easily online, it is considered the first post evidence of Switchblades in Ukraine and is not for the faint of heart.  

The second is a strike in the more general sense, we know from the numbers guessed by a mixture of Uranian, British and American intelligence that the Russians probably had around 12,000 tanks in Ukraine at the start of the war, we also know roughly how many they have lost and when. The announcement made by the US of providing Ukraine with Switchblades was made in March 2022, since then there has been a sharp increase in the rate of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles that have been destroyed. We have also heard reports that the Switchblade 600 can cut through a tank like butter, this would imply that 600s are not only in use but are having great effect. 

https://picryl.com/media/tbds-on-uss-enterprise-cv-6-during-battle-of-midway-4a2bc4?action=download&size=640

So, What Comes Next? 

We have seen how one desperate act made by a failing military in 1944 has had a knock-on effect on modern military tactics. The Kamikazes of World War Two were recognized as devastating to the morale of American servicemen and we are seeing the same effects in the Russian troops currently in Ukraine. Through a mixture of other drones supplied to Ukraine we are getting a glimpse at what a modern conventional war looks like. The future of warfare is for the machines and the drones. We’ve also seen how the Switchblade can uniquely launch every stage of a mission without any human interaction required, not only can a autonomous system launch the drone, it can identify targets and choose to engage and to make matters even more disturbing, the Blackwing can controlling the drone the entire time. In truth, none of us know what’s coming next, but if I was to guess, it’s probably going to involve killer robots, let us just hope they still follow our orders.  

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