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Loitering munitions in Ukraine: not game-changing, but headache-inducing

26th May 2022 - 11:00 GMT | by Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo in Milan

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Switchblade launch during a USMC training exercise in July 2021. (Photo: USMC/Pfc Sarah Pysher)

In terms of the emerging capabilities of loitering munitions, the Russo-Ukrainian war is serving as a proving ground before our eyes.

While the first weeks of the Ukraine war saw Ukrainian drones primarily involved in surveillance and recon missions, this changed after the US government agreed to provide the country with AeroVironment Switchblade loitering munitions — also known as suicide drones — in April 2022.

Eleven weeks into the conflict, the first reported evidence of the use of a Switchblade attack emerged near Kharkiv on 6 May. Washington has sent 700 Switchblade 300s and ten Switchblade 600s to Ukraine, in addition to 121 Phoenix Ghost platforms from Aevex Aerospace.

The recent introduction of such technologies is important in Ukraine, as this is the first war in which both sides could extensively rely on and deploy them in similar numbers. Loitering munitions have been used by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, beginning in 2011, and they were also reportedly deployed by Iran in Syria.

However, they were used for the first time in a peer-to-peer war during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, when Azerbaijan made far greater use of them than Armenia. This instance proved to be a milestone in showing the effectiveness of small tactical munitions in full-scale warfare, rather than solely in counter-insurgency operations.

'With both spotty electronic warfare and air defence protection, loitering drones will add a significant headache for Russians’Samuel Bendett, Center for New American Security

Referring to the ongoing war in Ukraine, Samuel Bendett, an advisor at the Center for New American Security (CNA), explained that ‘while loitering munitions are intended for “mass effect” — attrition at scale from repeated use of UAVs able to strike practically any target — we have not seen this so far.’

Nonetheless, he added, the tide could change with the hundreds of loitering munitions Ukraine is receiving from the US. These could prove to be ‘a key mission multiplier by having every Russian tank, armoured vehicle or personnel position as a potential target. With both spotty electronic warfare and air defence protection, loitering drones will add a significant headache for Russians’.

The battlefield effects of Switchblade will vary depending on which model is used by the Ukrainians but the 300 and 600 variants provide Kyiv them with a high level of flexibility. Given they can be launched from a tube prior to knowing the specific location of a target, they have time to loiter for up to 40 minutes before detonating on static or moving objects.

It must be noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not yet witnessed the full possible scale for deployment of loitering munitions, which ultimately carries key implications for both sides. Ukraine must remain vigilant; as Bendett points out, ‘they have not borne the full brunt of Russian KUB loitering drones since they are probably used in small numbers’.

Defence Insight

NameSwitchblade 600Switchblade 300KUBLancet-3
Suppliers

AeroVironment

AeroVironment 

Zala Aero GroupZala Aero Group

StatusIn productionIn productionIn productionIn production
Weight22.7kg2.5kg6kg12kg
Max Speed185km/h161km/h130km/h110km/h
Endurance40min10min30min40min
Range40km10km7km40km

This data has been verified by the same team that brings you Defence Insight. Want to learn more?

Loitering munitions such as KUB and Lancet have been used by Russian forces in Syria. If Russia was to introduce the latter and it performs as advertised, Lancet would be the only suicide drone in the conflict capable of truly autonomously locating and striking enemies.

It is also important to note that the Molniya loitering munition (made by Kronshtadt) can operate in a swarm — a capability that the Switchblade does not seem to possess. It remains unknown whether Phoenix Ghost is swarm-capable.

It is true that the Russian technologies were trialled in more controlled, permissive environments than Ukraine, and so their effectiveness in contested electromagnetic battlespace is questionable.

However, the possibility of eventually seeing a UAV swarm in the current conflict should not be ruled out.

In terms of the emerging capabilities of loitering munitions, the Ukraine war is serving as a proving ground before our eyes. A spokesperson for AeroVironment told Shephard that 'we’re at a point in history that is revolutionary where the tank — which used to be the king of the battlefield — is now playing second [fiddle] to missile systems that did not exist a couple of years ago. 

'Future conflicts are going to be and rely heavily on unmanned assets for battlefield engagement,' the spokesperson added.

How loitering munitions measure up against penetrating advanced air defence systems will teach modernising militaries significant lessons for 21st century warfare.

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