Weapons: US Military Issues Switchblades to Everyone


June 24, 2024: Noting the success of the Switchblade loitering munition in Ukraine, the U.S. has ordered thousands more sent to Ukrainian forces. At the same time the American army and marines are planning to issue more of these lightweight weapons to their own troops for use as a standard weapon, like existing rocket launchers and portable anti-tank weapons.

Ukrainian forces found Switchblade less effective than UAVs developed and built locally. The Ukrainians were dealing with a resourceful enemy and the Russian were already using several forms of jamming against Ukrainian UAVs. The $1,300 Switchblades needed several upgrades to be competitive with existing Ukrainian UAVs. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces are using cheap, about $500 each quadcopter UAVs controlled by soldiers a kilometer or more away, who use FPV (First Person Viewing) goggles to see what the day/night video camera on the UAV can see. Adding night vision doubles the cost for each UAV, so not all of them have that capability. Each of these UAVs carries half a kilogram of explosives, so it can instantly turn the UAV into a flying bomb that can fly into a target and detonate. This is an awesome and debilitating weapon when used in large numbers over the combat zone. If a target isn’t moving or requires more explosive power that the UAVs can supply, one of the UAV operators can call in artillery, rocket, or missile fire, or even an airstrike.

A major limitation is the need for trained UAV operators. These troops need over a hundred hours of training before they are able to start operating these UAVs, and another hundred hours of actual use before they are able to make the most out of the system. These UAVs are difficult to shoot down until they get close to the ground and the shooter is close enough, as in less than a few hundred meters, away to successfully target a UAV with a bullet or two and bring it down. Troops are rarely in position to do this, so most of these UAVs are able to complete their mission, whether it is a one-way attack or a reconnaissance and surveillance mission. The recon missions are usually survivable and enable the UAV to be reused. All these UAVs are constantly performing surveillance, which means that either side commits enough UAVs to maintain constant surveillance over a portion of the front line, to a depth, into enemy territory, of at least a few kilometers.

This massive use of FPV-armed UAVs has revolutionized warfare in Ukraine and both sides are producing as many as they can. Not having enough of these to match the number the enemy has in a portion of the front means you are at a serious disadvantage in that area. These UAVs are still evolving in terms of design and use and becoming more effective and essential. Currently most of the battlefield casualties in Ukraine are caused by armed UAVs.

One countermeasure that can work for a while is electronic jamming of the UAVs control signal. UAV guidance systems are constantly modified or upgraded to cope with this. Most UAVs have flight control software that sends UAVs with jammed control signals back to where they took off from to land and await. The jammers are on the ground and can be attacked by UAVs programmed to home in on the jamming signal and detonate their explosives on the source of the jamming signal. As a result, even countermeasures can be overcome and the side that can do this more quickly and completely has an advantage. That advantage is usually temporary because both sides are putting a lot of effort into keeping their combat UAVs effective on the battlefield. The more expensive Switchblade loitering munition has much less combat experience and, until Ukraine, none against an enemy like Russia with similar development and manufacturing capabilities.

Switchblade 600 entered service in 2020. While the original Switchblade 300 weighed 2.7 kg, Switchblade 600 was ten times heavier at 23 kg, could 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 at altitudes of under 100-150 meters. The heavier warhead could destroy most tanks, although some modern tank designs include protection from top attack.

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 could be saved and passed on. The operator also had 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 600 can be carried into a remote area and used quickly. This is what Ukrainian troops discovered and they used their Switchblade 600 very successfully and requested a lot more of them. This also persuaded the U.S. Army to issue Switchblade 600s to troops as a basic item of equipment and instruct soldiers on how to use these UAVs for reconnaissance and combat.

The marines were also early and enthusiastic users of Switchblade and found that it could be launched from the rear ramp of an MV-22 tilt-wing transport and carry out aerial reconnaissance for the marines as well as for attacking targets.

The original Switchblade was a small UAV fired, like all Switchblades, from its shipping tube container. Switchblade was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, a lot more. Switchblade completed development later in 2009 and was initially thought useful only for special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for general troop use and since then has ordered thousands more.

While Switchblade was developed for the army, the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had with this system and ordered them as well. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still used and thousands have been ordered and many of them used. There have been several upgrades

The original Switchblade was a lightweight, used only once UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) that could also be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade was 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 300 system, with a missile, container, and controller weighed 5.5 kg.

Moving up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade could stay in the air for 20-40 minutes, depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives. Switchblade can operate up to ten kilometers from the operator. The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus, 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. The troops were particularly enthusiastic about the armed version because it allowed them to more quickly take out snipers or a few bad guys in a compound full of civilians.

Switchblade has been so successful that the army ordered several upgrades and this updated Switchblade was renamed Switchblade 300. The new version appeared in 2016. It was a heavier 2.7 kg UAV with 15 minutes endurance and a 10-kilometer range. The sensor has night vision and is stabilized. The 300 could lock onto a target and track it. The 300 came with optional accessories, like a six-pack launcher that is used as part of base defense. This was first used for base protection in 2019 and proved useful. One or more of these six packs are placed near the base perimeter and power is maintained with a solar panel. The base security commander could order a Switchblade to be launched from the six-pack and control it as it searches for a potential target. Switchblade 300 was also capable of being used from a helicopter or larger UAV and controlled from the helicopter or by the operator of the larger UAV like a MQ-9 Reaper.




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