US Sends Switchblade Drones to Ukraine

April 14th, 2022 - by David Hambling / Forbes

The RQ-20 hand-launched drone is being supplied to Ukraine

Ukraine Gets A Deadly Hunter-Killer Drone Team:
US Switchblades And Pumas Join The War

David Hambling / Forbes

(April 5, 2022) — The Pentagon has approved another batch of arms for Ukraine, including Switchblade loitering munitions and a variety of other equipment including night vision gear, Humvees and small-caliber ammunition. One of the most interesting additions is a small tactical drone, the Puma. These can work together with the loitering munitions as hunter-killer teams, a technique recently demonstrated by the makers but never before used in combat.

The US Army use the drone under the name RQ-20 Puma; made by AeroVironment of California, it’s a hand-launched drone with a 15-foot wingspan. It is one of the heftier hand-launched craft, weighing over 20 pounds, and is correspondingly capable, with a flight endurance of more than five hours and a control range of more than 25 miles.

The Puma boasts a Mantis i45 sensor, like a miniature version of the sensor ball in Reaper-class drones, a gimballed sensor that swivels as the drone flies and provides a stabilized view of any point on the ground below. It has a low-light camera and an advanced thermal imager, both with a powerful zoom capability. This makes it useful for night operations, where Ukrainian tactical drones have been highly successful due to the Russian lack of effective night-vision gear.

But why send yet more drones to Ukraine when they have plenty? One listing indicates Ukraine’s military already operates more than 30 types of drone, most of them manufactured locally. The answer may lie in Puma’s stable mate, the Switchblade.

The Switchblade 300 “loitering munition” is another AeroVironment product, a truly tiny drone no bigger than a baguette that weighs less than five pounds and has a small explosive warhead. This type of portable lethal drone has been highly successful in Afghanistan and elsewhere for finding and finishing high-value targets at ranges of up to six kilometers. But once fired, it cannot be recalled so, if the operator fails to find a target, it is a Switchblade wasted. Only very limited numbers are being supplied to Ukraine — 100 in the first batch, and likely a similar number in the second batch.

The Puma solves the problem with the aid of AeroVironment’s Sensor-to-Shooter (S2S) Kit, first introduced last year. This allows AeroVironment’s other drones, including the Puma, to pass data via their proprietary digital data link directly to a Switchblade.

The Puma can locate targets with its superior sensors, which have longer range and better resolution than those on the Switchblade. The S2S allows the Puma operator to push a button and automatically launch a Switchblade, which homes in on the target’s location. On arrival, imagery from the two are matched to confirm the Switchblade has the correct target; upon operator approval, it will engage. The operator can see the entire attack via the Puma’s high-resolution video and assess the damage, determine whether another Switchblade is needed, and spots any new targets flushed out by the attack.

The Switchblade is a tube-launched “loitering munition.”

An additional and perhaps equally great benefit is that the Puma can act as an airborne communication relay. Normally the Switchblade is limited to a range of about six kilometers, a limitation imposed by control distance; with a flight time of over fifteen minutes and a cruising speed of over 60 mph, it can in principle hit far more distant targets. All it needs is great communications range, which Puma could provide.

The Puma-Switchblade team could take on Russian artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems mounted on unarmored trucks. These have been doing massive damage to Ukraine’s cities, and are vulnerable to the Switchblade’s warhead. They would also be useful for locating and eliminating high-value targets — several Russian generals have already been killed close to the front lines and Puma-Switchblade teams could account for more.

Unlike other weapons, the kamikaze drone has no launch signature, giving the Russians no clue where attacks are coming from, and making it ideal for stealthy surprise attacks.

The Puma-Switchblade combo was demonstrated last October in a NATO maritime exercise off Portugal known as Robotic Experimentation and Prototyping Augmented by Maritime Unmanned Systems or REP (MUS) 21. The Puma was launched from a US warship and located a target, then passed details to a Switchblade launched from a British robot vessel known as MADFOX.

(Another logical step would be having a larger drone act as a mothership for loitering munitions, a technique that AeroVironment is already working on in partnership with drone-makers Kratos.)

We have no reports yet of Switchblade being used in Ukraine. Switchblade has always been kept under wraps: thousands have been used in Afghanistan and elsewhere but there has been virtually no information and no video has ever been released of the weapon being used in action. But the teaming of drones and loitering munitions will be a big feature of future warfare and Russia is set to be on the receiving end of the first live tests. Whether or not we hear about it, the Puma-Switchblade teams will be making a difference.

UPDATE: The Pentagon has confirmed that the new batch will also include 10 Switchblade 600 models — the much larger version of the loitering munition. We looked at the Switchblade 600 when it was launched in 2020. This is a 50-pound weapon rather than a 5-pound one, with a range in excess of 50 miles. And it has a much larger warhead, described as having similar effects to a Javelin missile. In other words, it can take out the heaviest Russian tanks. Again, the 600 can be teamed with Puma drones to ensure the highest-value targets are found and hit and no Switchblade is wasted.

David Habing is a South London-based technology journalist, consultant and the author of ‘”Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world.” Follow him on Twitter and on his website

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.