The Rise of Robo-War: US and Russia Introducing ‘Kamikaze’ Drones in Ukraine

March 19th, 2022 - by Dan Lamothe / The Washington Post

Pentagon Dials Up Size, Scope of Ukrain Military Aid

Dan Lamothe / The Washington Post

‘Kamikaze’ drones are among the expected deliveries,
as the US also searches for ways to
improve Ukrainian air defenses

(March 17, 2022) — The Pentagon will expand the size and scope of weaponry being rushed to Ukraine, the Biden administration said Wednesday, including for the first time armed drones capable of inflicting significant damage to Russian ground units while US officials continue to search for sophisticated antiaircraft systems owned by European allies.

The disclosure coincided with President Biden’s pledge of an additional $800 million in security assistance for Ukraine, and after his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky, made an emotional appeal to Congress for the United States either to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine or to provide fighter jets and powerful surface-to-air weapons that would enable Zelensky’s military to shoot down Russian aircraft themselves.

“I need to protect our sky,” Zelensky said, calling on the United States “to do more” in “the darkest time for our country.” He asked for the “S-300 and other similar systems” that can take out aircraft flying at high altitudes.

Hours later, in an address of his own, Biden thanked Zelensky for his “passionate message” and said that it had been “convincing” and “significant.”

“This new package on its own is going to provide unprecedented assistance to Ukraine,” Biden said, adding that the inclusion of drones “demonstrates our commitment to sending our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defense.”

Biden has declined to provide Ukraine with fighter jets, even after Poland floated a proposal that would have transferred their Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, which Ukraine already operates, to US custody so that Washington — not Warsaw — could send them on to Ukraine. The president declined to discuss the jets Wednesday.

“I’m not going to comment on that right now,” Biden said. “I’m not going to comment on anything other than what I told you.”

The new aid package approved Wednesday includes 100 Switchblade drones, small unmanned aircraft packed with explosives that crash into targets in “kamikaze” fashion, said a US official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

The single-use weapons are cheaper than most US drones, and come in two sizes, according to AeroVironment, the manufacturer. The Switchblade 300 weighs about five pounds, flies up to 15 minutes at a time, and is designed to be carried in a backpack, assisting small infantry units tracking the Russians’ movements.

The Switchblade 600, by comparison, weighs about 50 pounds, flies up to 40 minutes, and is known as a “loitering missile” that can target armored vehicles. It was not clear which version the United States will be sending Ukraine.

A senior US defense official said it’s “safe to assume” that one of the drones’ purposes is “to deliver a punch.” This official added that he would not rule out whether the United States would send more of the drones to Ukraine in rolling fashion, as the Pentagon has with Javelin antitank weapons and Stinger missiles, human-portable weapons that are designed to take out low-flying aircraft.

The announcement came as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Europe on a trip that was to include stops at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and in Slovakia and Bulgaria, NATO nations that possess the S-300 antiaircraft systems capable of targeting jets at higher altitudes.

The administration has declined to detail what specific additional European surface-to-air missiles could be sent to Ukraine, but Biden said Wednesday that the United States has identified and is helping Ukraine acquire additional “longer-range antiaircraft systems and the munitions for those systems.”

Separately, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan called his counterpart in Greece, Thanos Dokos, on Wednesday. Greece, which also owns the S-300, “reiterated their commitment to international efforts to hold Moscow to account for its actions and to ensure Ukraine has the ability to defend itself,” Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.

The administration’s plan is to provide missile systems that Ukraine is already trained to use, an administration official said. Doing so would eliminate the need to provide Ukrainians training on American weapons in the middle of a crisis, and the possibility of American weapons falling into Russian hands.

Lawmakers have stressed the need to send S-300s. But some countries may have reservations about giving their weapons away, and “certainly we respect that,” the senior defense official said. He, too, declined to specify which systems could be sent.

“I know that everyone is focused on the S-300, but there are lots of different air-defense systems,” the official said.

Ukraine has asked for the SA-7 Grail and SA-8 Gecko in addition to the S-300, said another US official familiar with the situation. The SA-7, also known as the 9K32 Strela-2, is a shoulder-fired missile system that can reach aircraft flying more than two miles high. The SA-8, known as the 9K33 Osa in Russian-speaking countries, can reach planes up to three miles high, according to a US Army fact sheet.

The S-300 can reach altitudes of up to 18 miles, depending on the kind of missile it is firing.

Jim Stavridis, a retired US admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, said that the United States “must fully arm the Ukrainians” and prioritize their air defense, in particular.

“Stingers operate at a relatively low altitude, and the Ukrainians need higher reach — whether by surface-to-air missiles or more combat aircraft,” he said. “We need a Ukrainian no-fly zone — give them the tools to implement it.”

The White House said in a fact sheet Wednesday that other items that will be included in the latest package of approved military aid include 800 Stinger missiles and 9,000 anti-armor weapons. The latter category includes 2,000 Javelin missiles, 6,000 AT-4 rocket systems, and 1,000 “light” anti-armor weapons.

The Pentagon also will send 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns, 400 shotguns, more than 20 million rounds of small-arms ammunition plus grenade-launcher and mortar rounds, 25,000 sets of body armor, and 25,000 helmets, the White House said.

The new weapons shipments were announced as the Pentagon assessed for the first time that Russia is discussing how to send “replacement” forces to Ukraine to account for their combat losses. Conceivably, those forces could come from elsewhere in Russia, or another country in which Russian forces are deployed.

Russia, in addition to its continued bombardment of major Ukrainian cities by land, began shelling cities and towns around the key port city of Odessa on Wednesday, the Pentagon said. The United States also observed increased naval activity by Russian forces in the Black Sea, including by armored landing craft.

It was not clear if Russia is planning an amphibious assault on the port. Russia launched one amphibious landing early in its invasion, but it came on unguarded shoreline, the official said.

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