Designed by AeroVironment Inc, the Switchblade 300 and 600 are man-portable, operator-guided, loitering munitions also known as suicide drones.
A fireteam’s ability to manoeuvre on the battlefield is critical. Manoeuvre warfare relies on you pinning down the enemy while friendly elements advance on them. Unfortunately, this goes both ways. Friendly forces die when they get pinned down and can’t manoeuvre. Whether it be by sniper fire, a machinegun team, or another manoeuvre element. Returning fire while pinned down is almost certain death. In these scenarios calling for air support can be one of the best ways to break contact. However, time might be an asset you don’t have. It can take a long time for close air support to get on station. There may be more fire missions than available air assets in theatre. The enemy might be capable of denying friendly air assets from even getting on station. These are the problems the Switchblade drone solves.
2. History of the Switchblade Drone
The AeroVironment, Inc Switchblade is an American design and the brainchild of Airforce Special Operations Command. Eventually, both the US Army and USMC saw the system’s merits and began purchasing the Switchblade in large quantities. Over 4,000 have been used by the US military in Afghanistan. In 2021, the British military became the first foreign military to purchase the Switchblade. However, they wouldn’t be the last. (Source, Source)
The conflict in Ukraine has seen the deployment of numerous suicide drones from both sides. The Russians have been using the Russian KUB-BLA and Lancet-3 systems which the Switchblade outmatches. The Russian systems are required to be launched from a catapult on the ground rather than a man-portable tube system. Additionally, the Russian drones are bigger, heavier, and far less reliable. (Source)
The Switchblade has seen use primarily by the Ukrainian SSO, a special operations force of Ukraine. Videos released by the Ukrainian military have showcased the drone’s effectiveness when used by operators with a little ingenuity. This video highlights that although the Switchblade 300 does not have anti-armour capabilities, it can effectively neutralize the crew when they dismount. (Source)
As of today, an estimated 700 switchblade drones have been sent to Ukraine. The world is starting to take notice of this little drone’s big impact. Lithuania has seen how effective the drone has been in the ongoing conflict. As a result, Lithuania is planning to work out an agreement with the United States in order to purchase their own Switchblade drones. (Source, Source)
3. Current Users
- United States
- United Kingdom
- Lithuania (potentially)
- France (potentially)
4. Switchblade 300 Drone
By the US Army’s nomenclature, the Switchblade is technically a missile. However, it is colloquially referred to as a suicide drone and is named for its stabilising wings that swing open upon exiting its launch tube. The Switchblade refers to two different operator-guided loitering munitions: the Switchblade 300 and 600. The 300 is the smaller and more prevalent of the two.
The entire system can be carried and fired by one person. The drone is launched by a system that resembles a small mortar tube. Once fired the Switchblade has an integrated day and night vision camera that streams the video to the operator’s tablet-style controller. (Source, Source)
The Switchblade system is designed for the aforementioned scenarios, when close air support may be unavailable. It allows the user to deploy it from cover, find and rapidly engage a target such as a sniper. The 300 carries a payload like a 40mm grenade. A typical 40mm grenade has a kill radius of 5m and a casualty radius of up to 130m. However, one of the Switchblade’s selling points is that it provides a directed blast to minimize collateral damage rather than one in all directions. As the manufacturer states, “you can fly this into the window of a room and have almost a 100-per cent probability of not injuring anyone in the next room”. The system’s largest downside is that they are all essentially made by hand at AeroVironment. (Source, Source, Source)
- Length: 49.5cm
- Range: 10km
- Flight time: 15 min
- Weight 2.5kg (includes payload, launcher, transport bag)
- Speed: 101km/h cruise and 161km/h dash
The Switchblade is capable of locking onto targets and tracking them if they move. Additionally, the drones provide the user with real-time video feed and the drone’s current GPS coordinates. The user can call off the drone up to four seconds prior to impact and it will return to loitering. (Source)
The Switchblade flies via a small two-wing propeller powered by an electric motor. As a result, the drone is exceptionally quiet. This combined with its small size makes it incredibly hard to detect and even harder to shoot down. (Source)
In the future, AeroVironment plans to implement a “sensor to shooter” system into the Switchblade. This would allow the suicide drones to work in conjunction with reconnaissance drones. The recon drone would be deployed first to mark targets. Once a target is marked, the Switchblade would be deployed and the targeting data from the recon drone would be transferred to it. Eliminating the need to fire a Switchblade to find targets. (Source)
The US military also employs variations of the Switchblade for different purposes. The US Navy has a variant known as the Blackwing. The Blackwing is launched from a submarine while submerged via an underwater-to-air canister delivery system. However, the Blackwing has no explosive payload and is used for surveillance and reconnaissance. Other Switchblades serve anti-drone functions and interdict enemy drones in the air should electronic jamming systems fail. (Source, Source)
5. Switchblade 600 Drone
Akin to the Switchblade’s bigger brother, the 600 is a beefed-up version with a much bigger payload. The 600 is designed primarily to destroy enemy armour and carriers the same warhead used by the Javelin missile systems. However, the 600’s increased firepower comes at the cost of weight and portability. (Source)
- Length: 130cm
- Range: 40km
- Flight time: 40 min
- Weight 54.4kg (entire system)
- Speed: 112km/h cruise and 185km/h dash
The Switchblade 300 drone system is an incredible asset to soldiers on the ground. It enables them to provide their own air support right when they need it most. Equally important, the system is incredibly lightweight, minimizing the strain on soldiers who are already loaded down with equipment. The Switchblade 600’s viability is much more questionable. The 600’s requirement to be carried by multiple people takes away much of the attraction that the 300 has. Overall, the 300 appears to be an incredibly handy and versatile tool. Allowing soldiers to break contact, surveil their surrounding area, and engage the enemy all without exposing themselves. It is highly likely that the Switchblade will continue to be utilized by soldiers for years to come.