What are the Switchblade 'kamikaze' drones the US is sending to Ukraine?

The weapons extend the range of attacks against Russian vehicles and units

The Switchblade is a camera-equipped, remote-controlled flying bomb with a reputation for pinpoint delivery. AP
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The US is sending Ukraine 100 Switchblade "kamikaze" drones as part of a bigger military package announced by President Joe Biden.

Drone war has already given Ukraine some battlefield successes and the new weapon will be a lethal addition.

· Despite looking like a mini-aeroplane, Switchblades are more like a "smart bomb".

· The 300 model weighs 2.7 kilograms and fits into a rucksack. It is 60 centimetres long and can fly for up to 15 minutes.

· They are launched like a mortar. Once in the air, their wings unfold.

· They have on-board video cameras and colour sensors to aid with guidance.

· They are essentially camera-equipped, remote-controlled flying bombs that can be directed by an operator to find a target then, when ready, plunge on to it. They explode on contact, hence the "kamikaze" nickname.

Switchblades extend the range of attack on Russian vehicles and units to beyond the sight of the user. That gives them an advantage over the guided heat-seeking missiles the Ukrainians have used against Russian tanks.

The dive-bombing Switchblade, made by AeroVironment, has been used by US commandos since it was secretly sent to Afghanistan in 2010 for use against the Taliban.

The larger 600 model is effective against armoured targets and can fly for more than 40 minutes. It was not immediately known which models are being sent to Ukraine.

The Switchblade cruises at 100kph and provides “operators with real-time video downlinks for a centralised view of the area of operation” and also has a “wave-off capability” to adjust targets in flight.

Turkish drones in Ukraine

Ukrainian servicemen with a Bayraktar TB2 drone during military exercises last year. Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Ukrainian forces already have a fleet of Turkish-made drones that drop precision-guided weapons.

The Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles, which carry lightweight, laser-guided bombs, normally excel in low-tech conflicts.

They carried out unexpectedly successful attacks in the early stages of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, before the Russians were able to set up their air defences in the battlefield, said land warfare expert Jack Watling, of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“The (TB2s) shouldn’t be making a meaningful impact because they are medium altitude, slow-flying aircraft with a large electromagnetic signature and a large radar cross-section. And the Russians have very capable air defence systems, so they should be being shot down. The terrain is very open and gives good radar coverage,” Mr Watling said.

He said Ukrainian forces “have been essentially flying in at a low-level and then coming up and raiding with them. So striking targets of opportunity”.

In a briefing to the British Parliament, Defence Minister Ben Wallace praised the drones, as he did other weapons donated to Ukraine by the West.

“One of the ways they are delivering close air support or actual fire in depth is through the Turkish TB2 UAVs, which are delivering munitions on to their artillery and indeed their supply lines, which are incredibly important in order to slow down or block the Russian advance,” Mr Wallace said.

Turkey began selling the TB2 drones to Ukraine in 2019.

Other US weapons

The newly-promised weapons and equipment include:

  • 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems
  • 2,000 surface-to-air Javelin missiles, which can be shoulder-launched or fired from a launcher
  • 1,000 light anti-armour weapons
  • 6,000 AT-4 portable anti-tank weapons
  • 100 tactical unmanned systems, which officials say is the Switchblade
  • 100 grenade launchers
  • 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns and 400 shotguns
  • More than 20 million rounds of small-arms ammunition and grenade launcher and mortar rounds
  • 25,000 sets of body armour and helmets

The US has already delivered or promised $1.2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. This includes:

  • More than 600 Stinger anti-aircraft systems
  • About 2,600 Javelin anti-armour systems
  • Five Mi-17 helicopters
  • Three patrol boats
  • Four counter-artillery and counter-unmanned aerial system tracking radars
  • Four counter-mortar radar systems
  • 200 grenade launchers and ammunition
  • 200 shotguns and 200 machine guns
  • Nearly 40 million rounds of small-arms ammunition and more than a million grenade, mortar, and artillery rounds
  • 70 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles and other vehicles
  • Secure communications, electronic warfare detection systems, body armour, helmets, and other tactical gear
  • Military medical equipment to support treatment and combat evacuation
  • Explosive ordnance disposal and demining equipment
  • Satellite imagery and analysis capability
Updated: March 17, 2022, 12:15 PM
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