January 23, 2023:
Lithuania became the first export customer for Switchblade 600 loitering munition. The $48 million deal gets Lithuania several thousand Switchblade 600s. Ukraine is already using the smaller but smaller 2,5 kg (5.5 pound) Switchblade 300s and possibly 600 as well. The 600 is a new Switchblade model that was introduced in 2020. It is the latest version of the original Switchblade loitering munition that appeared in 2011. While the original Switchblade weighed a kilogram (2.2 pounds), the latest Switchblade is ten times heavier at 23 kg (50 pounds), 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.
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 vidcam carried. 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 600 can be carried into a remote area and used quickly.
Lithuania needs Switchblade 600 because it is a small country (2.8 million people) that borders Russia and Belarus as well as the Baltic Sea. Lithuania has one of the highest per-capita GDPs in the world, one that is higher than Russia and Belarus. Active-duty military forces are only 20,000 personnel and conscription was revived in 2015 because of Russian attacks on Ukraine. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are the three small Baltic States that were all part of Russia until 1991. All have small armed forces and have spent more on weapons and equipment since 2015. The Baltic States have been big supporters of aid to Ukraine which, they realize, is fighting to repel the 2022 Russian invasion. That fighting also defends the Baltic States and Poland, who are next on the Russian conquest list. These four countries have been victims of Russian aggression many times in the past thousand years. The Switchblade 600s are a useful addition to the Lithuanian arsenal because they provide the troops with an effective surveillance and attack missile that is portable and easy-to-use.
The original Switchblade was a small UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) launched, like all Switchblades, from its shipping container. Switchblade was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more,and more, and 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 troop use and since then has ordered a lot 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. Thousands were ordered, many which were used, and Switchblade is still in use. There have been several upgrades
The original Switchblade was a lightweight and expendable (used only once) UAV that could also be equipped with explosives. 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) reusable Raven UAV. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds).
Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade can 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 or fire on 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 is heavier (2.7 kg) with 15 minutes endurance and a 10-kilometer range. The sensor has night vision and is stabilized. The 300 can lock onto a target and track it. The 300 comes 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 effective and 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 can order a Switchblade to be launched from the six-pack and control it as it searches for a potential target. Switchblade 300 is 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 Reaper).
The U.S. Navy also requested a version of Switchblade, for reconnaissance only, that could be launched from ships or submerged (at periscope depth) submarines. In this case the sub would have a communications mast on the surface to receive data from what was called the Blackwing. This version is a little heavier, at 1.8 kg (four pounds). The size of the Blackwing is designed to fit into existing navy countermeasure launchers. Blackwing has endurance of about an hour without a warhead, and uses encrypted digital communications compatible with current navy systems. When released from a submarine countermeasures launcher, the Blackwing container pops to the surface and the Blackwing is ejected into flight like the other Switchblades. The U.S. Navy has bought over 200 Blackwings since. Armed versions of Blackwing are available but these have shorter endurance. For subs, reconnaissance is the most important item. The last (2021) Blackwing order was for 120 for use by submarines. Several years of testing convinced submarine personnel that Blackwing was a compact and useful addition to their sensor and surveillance toolbox.
Switchblade is not a unique concept, as these “loitering munitions” have been around for decades. What Switchblade provided was a design that met the needs of combat troops, especially special operations personnel. Since Switchblade entered service and its popularity became widely known, similar systems have appeared, trying to provide features that Switchblade lacked but the troops would appreciate.