By Ray Meloy
The Russia/Ukraine conflict might go down in history as the drone war. While tanks and Javelin missiles might take the spotlight, drones do much of the unseen daily work of reconnaissance and fighting. Among the billions of dollars in weapons shipped to Ukraine, a couple of little man-portable drones are proving themselves on the battlefield.
The Switchblade 300 and 600 drones are on the cutting edge of remote battlefield weapons. These two drones, manufactured by AeroVironment, Inc., add a new dimension to the battlefield.
It weighs only around 6 pounds, including the launch tube and control unit. A single soldier can carry the drone and set it up in a few minutes. Propelled into the air from its launch tube, the drone can fly up to a little over 6 miles with a loitering time of 15 minutes. An electric motor powers its propeller to attain a speed between 62 and 100 miles an hour. This little 2-foot-long drone is hard to see and shoot down. Because of its small size, it packs a small warhead, around the size of a 40-millimeter grenade, that scatters its fragments into a cone ahead of the drone. The warhead can be programmed to detonate in an airburst or on impact. A feature of both drones is the ability to wave off an attack, helping to limit collateral damage.
A weapon is of no use if it can't find its target. Switchblade drones have GPS guidance along with color and infrared cameras. Its secure data link can transfer the drone to other operators. One of the first of its kind, the Switchblade 300 can attack and destroy enemy drones in flight. Other drones can carry the Switchblade 300 to strike targets far away. In a recent development, the U.S. Navy armed a drone speedboat with a six-pack launcher for Switchblade 300 drones.
While the Switchblade 300 has its place on the battlefield as an anti-personnel and thin-skinned vehicle weapon, its small warhead hinders its ability to attack heavier armored targets.
Enter Switchblade 600. Weighing in at 33 pounds, this larger drone packs a warhead that can take out a tank. It has a similar warhead that the venerable Javelin anti-tank missile carries. Along with its larger size, it can travel a longer distance of 25 miles at speeds up to 70 to 115 miles an hour and loiter for over 40 minutes over a target. Equipped with a gimballing camera setup, the Switchblade 600 has better sight to pick out hidden targets.
These two drones are a class of expendable weapons called loitering munitions. Once launched, they can scout an area for enemy targets. If no target presents itself, the operator can remotely detonate its warhead. Sometimes referred to as "kamikaze drones," they are not designed to be recovered for reuse.
As more types of drones enter the battlefield, the way wars are fought will be forever changed.