When they were first developed in the 1980s, suicide UAVs were designed to counter surface-to-air missiles through automatic and precisely timed strikes. Their ability to suppress enemy air defenses using relatively low-cost components changed the way weapons systems would be developed and also made them a foundation in modern drone warfare.
Over the last several decades, they’ve been enhanced and diversified to broaden their battlefield capabilities and their versatility. Now known as loitering munitions, this tactical drone and missile family is playing an increasingly critical role in global conflicts. Modern loitering munitions can be as simple as explosive-equipped quadcopters or as sophisticated as fully-autonomous search-and-launch devices with a combination of reconnaissance and strike capabilities.
Among the more recently publicized loitering munitions used in modern conflicts are the Aerovironment Switchblade drone systems. Hundreds of Switchblade systems—each containing 10 tactical drones—were included in the military support packages sent by the United States to Ukraine earlier in 2022.
As a result, there’s been a lot of buzz over how these tactical unmanned aerial systems will impact the current conflict but also a future where autonomous weapons will likely dominate the battlefield. A closer look at the capabilities of the Switchblade drone and its specific variations could provide some insight into what’s likely to become a standard in loitering munitions.
A Closer Look At The Switchblade 300
As a lighter version of the more destructive, larger, and newer Switchblade 600, the 300 variant offers unique benefits to troops in the field. Introduced in 2011 and refined over several years, the Switchblade 300 was reportedly embraced as a precise and effective tool in numerous testing and close-combat scenarios. The system is compact and light, weighing under six pounds, and able to be carried in an ordinary backpack.
It can be deployed discreetly and quickly, with the ability to be set up and launched in under two minutes. Once activated, the Switchblade drone can be operated for up to 15 minutes, at speeds between 63 and 100 MPH, over a range of roughly six miles, making it suitable for targets just beyond the line of sight. Real-time GPS coordinates and video provide vital insight to the operator and ensure highly precise targeting and mitigation of collateral effects.
The Switchblade can also be pre-programmed and complete the entirety of its mission autonomously. Operators have the option to abort detonation within four seconds of impact via the system’s Ground Control Station. The Claymore mine-sized explosive is capable of destroying small targets like light armored vehicles, which is comparably less destructive than the tank-destroying Switchblade 600 but still highly effective for close-combat operations.
AeroVironment designed the Switchblade 300 and 600 systems for thwarting ambushes and neutralizing threats in combat situations like those that were common in Afghanistan, but the portability, versatility, and low expense of both Switchblade drones have made them a key choice for defending Ukraine. Other nations, in Europe and beyond, have been paying attention.
Switchblade Drones And Loitering Munitions In Demand
Intrigued by the capabilities and the economy of the Switchblade drones, the French Army is looking at the possibility of acquiring nearly 100 loitering weapons systems in the near future. According to manufacturer AeroVironment, considerable interest from various militaries has been generated since the U.S. Department of Defense announced the drones’ inclusion in the Ukraine aid package.
A non-lethal version of the Switchblade 300, known as the Blackwing, is also creating an international stir. The small drones may be used as a monitoring and intelligence-gathering tool in various maritime operations, particularly those involving submarines. The Blackwing could also be adapted to function as a decoy, payload delivery system, electronic jamming device, and more.