On April 13, 2022, President Joe Biden announced the authorization of an additional $800 million in weapons, ammunition and other security assistance to Ukraine. Included in this aid package is the advanced and deadly Switchblade miniature loitering munition. Made by AeroVironment, the Switchblade’s attack method of flying into a target to detonate its explosive payload has earned it its media designation as a kamikaze drone.
The concept of a miniature loitering munition was conceived by the US Air Force Special Operations Command and developed by the US Army. While close air support and man-portable weapon systems like the FGM-148 Javelin missile provide ground forces with amplified combat power, the former can take time arrive on station and the latter is large and heavy. The Switchblade was designed to be a compact and man-portable weapon to give troops an immediate combat solution.
Unlike a UAV, the Switchblade cannot be recovered once launched. In fact, the Army categorizes it as a missile rather than a drone. The original Switchblade is just two feet long and weighs only six pounds including its carrying case and launcher. By comparison, a Javelin weighs 49 pounds between its missile, launch tube, and Command Launch Unit. Once launched, the Switchblade unfolds its wings to begin controlled flight, hence its name. It has a control range of 6.2 miles and its electric engine can propel the Switchblade for up to 10 minutes. The weapon’s attack speed in 98 mph.
With its color camera and GPS, an operator can use the Switchblade to search an area, positively identify a target and destroy it. The ability for Switchblade to loiter while identifying a target on an ever-changing battlefield gives it a distinct advantage over the venerable Javelin. It can also be waved off to a secondary target or self-destructed to prevent collateral damage if conditions change after it begins its attack.
In late 2012, the first 75 Switchblades were deployed in Afghanistan. Following several successful employments, theater commanders requested more. Troops praised the system’s portability, precision, flexibility, and lethality. The Marine Corps even managed to test-fire an inert Switchblade from the back of an MV-22 Osprey. Throughout the remainder of Operation Enduring Freedom, over 4,000 Switchblades were deployed in Afghanistan.
Following the success of the anti-personnel Switchblade, an anti-armor version was unveiled in 2020 to meet the capabilities of the Javelin. The new version was designated the Switchblade 600 while the original was rebranded as the Switchblade 300. Weighing 50 pounds, the 600 requires 10 minutes to set up. It was designed to fly out to 25 miles in 20 minutes and loiter for up to an additional 20 minutes before attacking. Armed with an anti-tank warhead based on the Javelin’s, the 600 has an attack speed of 115 mph and is designed to be lethal against even the most modern main battle tanks.
While Ukraine has experienced great success employing more conventional anti-armor weapons against Russian forces, the Switchblade would be a marked improvement to the nation’s defense capabilities. The military aid package being sent to Ukraine will reportedly contain both the 300 and 600 models of the Switchblade. The Blackwing, and unarmed reconnaissance variant of the Switchblade introduced in 2015, was not mentioned. Notably, while the DOD confirmed the sale of the Switchblade to the UK in 2021 and Lithuania announced its intention to purchase the system in April 2022, Ukraine is on track to be the first nation outside of the US to employ the Switchblade in combat.