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Homeworld"Critical" tank-killer Switchblades will boost Ukraine's drone stocks

"Critical" tank-killer Switchblades will boost Ukraine’s drone stocks

Ukraine is set to receive further deliveries of the Switchblade 600 suicide drone, according to its manufacturer, in a move that could boost Kyiv’s ability to take out Russian assets far behind the heavily fortified front lines.

Ukraine’s military currently has more of the smaller Switchblade 300 drones than the larger Switchblade 600 models, but “that will soon change,” said Charlie Dean, the vice president of global business development and marketing at defense contractor AeroVironment.

The Switchblade 600 is “tremendously important to the defense of Ukraine,” Dean told Newsweek.

The U.S. has provided several types of drones to Ukraine in military aid packages, including the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions. The Switchblades— also used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan—have appeared in combat footage coming out of Ukraine, but the Pentagon has not disclosed just how many were sent.

When approached for comment by Newsweek, the Pentagon said it could offer no additional details on the “specific quantities or types of weapons, systems and equipment provided to our Ukrainian partners” beyond publicly available announcements.

The U.S. Defense Department “will continue to support Ukraine with the means to defend itself in the near term and deter against further aggression,” spokesperson Jeff Jurgensen said in a statement.

The U.S. has furnished Ukraine with “a very large number” of Switchblade 300s, Dean said, adding that “they’ve been quickly used on the battlefield for their intended purposes.”

“The 600s are also being used in Ukraine, and those quantities are adding up quickly in the country,” he said. “The 300s continue to outnumber the 600s presently, but that will soon change.”

The Switchblades have been under development for more than a decade. The original 300 model is still being tweaked and updated today, and the latest version of the 300 has a range of more than 12.5 miles and can fly for more than 20 minutes, according to the AeroVironment specifications.”

The 300—designed to give a unit close and immediate close air support—has undergone “quite a number of evolutions over the years,” Dean said.

The larger Switchblade 600 then emerged, crafted to take out enemy tanks and armored vehicles littered across a battlefield. The latest models can fly for more than 40 minutes, with a loitering speed of 70 miles per hour.

Because Russia’s forces are kitted out in heavy armor, “the use of a weapon like the Switchblade 600 is critical to getting at these enemy weapon systems,” Dean said.

The 600 can give Ukrainian operators a range of around 55 miles, meaning “they can destroy very important Russian assets well behind the Russian front lines, which no other weapons can do to that degree,” Dean said.

But, unlike artillery, the Switchblades can approach an area before the operator is able to search for targets after the drones are launched.

“All the way to the end of the Switchblades’ flight, the operator can be making decision,” said Dean. “The operator can choose to fly away from the immediate target that perhaps they were after initially, because they found the target of higher value.

“It’s very unique compared to artillery.”

Videos shared online as far back as May 2022 show Ukrainian troops using Switchblade suicide drones to target Russian forces.

Ukraine has long publicized its ambitions to stock up its “drone army,” and has debuted domestically-made drones like the “Beaver” uncrewed vehicles that made it all the way to Moscow.

“Ukraine is on its way to become a world leader in drones production,” Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov told Newsweek back in August. “The experience we are getting right now is unique, in terms of its usage, constant improvement of technologies, the research and development process, and scaling the production,” he said.

Companies like AeroVironment are also learning from daily battlefield experiences in Ukraine, Dean said. There is a constant communication link between the company and the Ukrainian Switchblade operators, meaning the drone designs can be improved or adjusted within weeks.

Quantity is key for such widely used and versatile technology. Estimates from the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank earlier this year suggested Ukraine was losing around 10,000 drones every month.

But loitering munitions like the Switchblades have not only been within easy reach of Ukraine’s military, but have become a staple of Russian assaults on Ukrainian infrastructure and cities.

Russia has extensively deployed Iranian-designed Shahed-131 and the larger Shahed-136 “kamikaze” drones across Ukraine, and Kyiv’s military frequently reports nightly onslaughts of the loitering munitions along with missile strikes.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s General Staff said Moscow’s forces had attacked Ukraine’s southern regions with Shahed drones overnight and that Ukrainian air defenses had downed the majority of the explosive drones. The Ukrainian military did not give further details.

The previous day, Kyiv’s air force said it had downed 27 Shahed drones launched from eastern Crimea, targeting the southern regions of Odesa, Mykolaiv and Kherson. The General Staff said in a statement that the Kremlin had deployed a total of 36 Shahed drones.

The Tehran-designed drones are a “core element of Russia’s campaign of long-range strikes into Ukraine,” the British defense ministry said earlier this week.

On the other side of the front lines, “the loitering munitions play a very important role in what the Ukrainians are doing,” Dean said.

“The Ukrainians don’t have the artillery firepower of the Russians, they don’t have the the expendable human capital of the Russians,” he said. “The unmanned systems, include the loitering munitions, play a huge role in really offsetting the balance of firepower.”

The Ukraine war has spurred drone innovation at “lightning pace,” with new designs springing up almost daily. The appetite for drones seems almost insatiable, and AeroVironment has upped its output to keep up with demand.

“We can produce many, many, many thousands of our products every day,” Dean said, and it would be “easy” to ramp up this production further.

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