Air Weapons: Iranian UAV Killer


April 24, 2024: Several years ago, Iran developed a new weapon to destroy enemy UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The Iranian weapon is the 358 loitering munition that is designed to detect and destroy low and medium altitude UAVs or even helicopters. The 358 is 2.7 meters long, weighs about 40 kilograms and carries a ten kilogram explosive warhead. The 358 is programmed to circle or fly a pattern over an area until it detects a target with its heat seeking guidance system and a laser-proximity fuse so the 358 warhead detonates when the 358 is as close as it is going to get to a target. Speed of the 358 is about 500 kilometers an hour. The 358 uses a small solid fuel explosive charge or rocket to get it out of its launch canister and into the air where its gas turbine engine takes over. The 358 travels along a figure eight pattern at an altitude of a thousand or less meters until it detects and attacks a target. If no target is detected by the time the fuel runs out, the 358 crashes to the ground. The 358 can be equipped with a communications link so an operator can move the 358 to another patrol area.

The 358 has been in use since 2018 and ships of the American naval blockade of Iran and Yemen have captured dozens of them that were being smuggled to Iran backed groups like the Shia Houthis of Yemen and similar groups elsewhere in the region. The 358 has also shown up in Lebanon and western Syria where they destroy UAVs and threaten low flying helicopters. The 358 is less of a threat to low flying jet fighters unless the jet flies right by them. Loitering near airbases, 358 can attack aircraft that are landing or taking off. A helicopter gunship can destroy 358s but must be careful that the 358 doesn’t attack first.

If there are 358s in an area where helicopters or low flying jets are operating, or landing and taking off, 358s can be a threat because their guidance and detection systems allow 358s to attack any nearby and accessible target. That, in general, is what loitering munitions do. For example, last year in Ukraine the United States sent Switchblade 600 loitering munitions for use against Russian ground targets. Ukraine received hundreds of Switchblade loitering munitions and some of the larger Switchblade 600s. Ukraine uses the smaller 2.5 kg Switchblade 300s and larger 600s to find and then attack targets. These are not reusable weapons. The Switchblade was introduced in 2020. The original Switchblade that was introduced in 2011 weighed a kilogram while the latest Switchblade is ten times heavier at 23 kg, can stay in the air for 40 minutes and be controlled up to 80 kilometers from the operator. Top speed is 180 kilometers an hour and more economical cruise speed is closer to 150 kilometers an hour. The heavier warhead can destroy most tanks, although some modern tank designs include protection from top attack.

The 600 can be carried into a remote area and used quickly. Switchblade 600 was requested by the U.S. Army for longer range surveillance missions and the option to hit specific small targets, like a building or enemy position. Unlike the earlier Switchblades, the 600 uses a tablet controller with more options, including manipulating the more powerful video camera. Video transmitted back to the operator can be saved and passed on. The operator also has a wave off feature in which a quick tap on the controller screen can cause the 600 to abort an attack and be available for another try. The 600 can also be programmed to carry out a mission without operator control. This means there is no control signal for enemy electronic warning systems to detect or jam. In this case when time is up the 600 self-destructs. The 358 has a similar feature This guidance option was the only one that could get past the occasional Russian use of their Strizh-3 UAV signal jammer.

Over the last decade the American military has been upgrading the security of their communications. These upgrades are especially critical for weapons and aircraft that are controlled via wireless signals. A recent example was the U.S. Army decision to upgrade all its older Switchblade UAVs to the Block 10C standard. This involved upgrading the communications between operator and UAV to use an encrypted digital link. This makes it nearly impossible for enemy forces to eavesdrop or hijack Switchblade communications. Block 10C Switchblades were introduced in 2016 but there were still older models without the encrypted data link and, with Russian EW (Electronic Warfare) forces so active in Syria and elsewhere, it became important to use only Block 10C Switchblades. Moreover, Switchblade is frequently used by special operations troops where secure communications and reliability are particularly important

Since 2014, when most American and NATO forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, most of the U.S. troops in combat are SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commandos and Special Forces in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. These troops require some special equipment and one of the most used items is Switchblade, which is a one kilogram expendable UAV that can be equipped with explosives and also used as a weapon. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same controller as the larger two kg Raven UAV.

A complete Switchblade system including missile, container, and controller weighs 5.5 kg. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan, where it was first tested, and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still widely used with over 6,000 produced so far. Switchblade first saw combat in 2009 and each one costs about $80,000. For SOCOM forces, who often travel light into enemy territory, hauling along a Switchblade or two can be crucial for completing a mission, not to mention a lifesaver in emergencies.

Users regarded Switchblade as a micro-UAV/cruise missile. It was both aerial surveillance and a weapon. More importantly, it could be carried and used by individual troops. Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade can stay in the air for 10-15 minutes depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives and remain under operator control up to ten kilometers away. The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Switchblade enables ground troops to get at an enemy taking cover in a hard to see location. Technically a guided missile, the use of Switchblade as a reconnaissance tool encouraged developers to refer to it as a UAV. But because of the warhead option, and its slow speed, Switchblade also functions like a rather small cruise missile and can be flown by its controller or autonomously via GPS coordinates. The troops were particularly enthusiastic about the armed version because it allowed them to easily take out snipers or a few enemy soldiers in a compound full of civilians.

The United States sent some Switchblade UAV systems to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful, and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. That was unexpected because initially Switchblade was used largely by Special Forces and other special operations troops. In 2011, after more than a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for troop use and every year more had to be ordered because regular infantry units in combat got their hands on it and demanded more. By 2012 the U.S. Marine Corps was using Switchblade as well.

Others noticed Switchblade. In 2015 An Israeli firm introduced the new Hero loitering UAVs. These were portable enough, at 3 kg, for the infantry to carry and use. The Hero 30 has 30 minutes endurance and has a small warhead that can use used to turn it into a weapon if the onboard vidcam indicates a target that has to be taken care of immediately. Otherwise, it can be landed and reused. Hero 30 is based on the older Hero 400 which weighs 40 kg and has an 8 kg warhead. This UAV has a four hour endurance and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. Israel noticed that the United States was having a lot of success and demand from SOCOM and infantry units for the Switchblade that was similar to the Hero 30.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close