How Switchblade Drones Could Turn the Tide of Ukraine War

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged members of Congress for more help against Russia on Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine.

Under the new massive military aid package, Ukraine will be provided with long-range missiles and 100 "tactical unmanned aerial systems," as Biden called them. More precisely, these are Switchblade armed drones.

What Are Switchblade Drones?

Manufactured by AeroVironment, Inc., there are two types of Switchblade drones: the Switchblade 300 and the 600.

The first is meant to hit smaller targets, while the 600 is designed to strike tanks and big armored vehicles. The 300 is less than 2-feet long and weighs only 5.5 pounds, according to manufacturer AeroVironment. Once launched, it can fly for up to 15 minutes for a range of 6 miles.

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The Switchblade 300 can fly for up to 15 minutes. AeroVironment

The Switchblade 600 is much heavier, weighing up to 50 pounds, but can fly for up to 40 minutes and for a range of over 25 miles. AeroVironment says that it can be set up and operational in less than 10 minutes.

Switchblade drones US military
The Switchblade 600 is designed to strike armored vehicles. AeroVironment

Switchblade drones are single-use weapons. U.S. army officials have described them as akin to flying shotguns, meant to explode when hitting their targets and not recoverable once launched.

"Kamikaze drone is quite an apt description: the technology is much the same as the hand-launched tactical reconnaissance drones also supplied by AeroVironment, except that it's on a one-way mission with an explosive warhead," David Hambling, author of Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World, told Newsweek.

This type of drone is extremely portable and can be carried in a backpack.

They can be fired from tubes and launched in the air like mortar shells, and they are able to hit Russian targets from 25 miles away. They can be programmed to hit targets automatically and they are quite fast at doing so, dashing at speeds between 100 and 115 miles per hour.

Once the drone reaches its target, it detonates its warhead containing explosives. Any strike can be blocked by a "wave-off" option that allows operators to abort a mission if civilians are close to the target.

According to AeroVironment, the drones are able to launch a "precision strike with very low collateral damage."

Every Switchblade drone comes equipped with a camera, guidance systems and explosives. Because of their size, they are hard to detect for most air systems.

Switchblade drones US military
This image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, shows a Switchblade 300 10C drone system being used as part of a training exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Sept. 24, 2021. President Biden announced on Wednesday that the U.S. will send 100 Switchblade drones to Ukraine. Alexis Moradian/U.S. Marine Corps via AP

How Could They Be Used in Ukraine?

The U.S. could be sending Ukraine either or both of two types of Switchblade drones that are available to the country: the Switchblade 300 and the 600.

The drones would allow Ukrainian forces to hit beyond-line-of-sight targets with lethal effects, and "neutralize multiple-launch rockets and artillery units," according to Hambling.

Because the Switchblade's warhead is designed to explode causing minimal collateral damage, the drones would be the perfect weapons for Ukrainians to avoid causing more destruction in their city while organizing a counterattack against the Russians and preventing civilian casualties.

Switchblade drones US military
Switchblade drones can fit in a rucksack and can be launched from multiple platforms. AeroVironment

The initial number of Switchblade drones that will be delivered to Ukrainian troops is something of a test, Hambling said.

"100 is a starter set: the Ukrainians have never used this type of munition so this batch will prove their value and whether the U.S. needs to send Switchblades or something else," he explained.

Switchblade drones have been used before against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2010, "and Syria, judging from recovered remains," said Hambling.

"They were permitted in situations where other less discriminating weapons would have caused too much risk of collateral damage," Hambling added. But despite "thousands of them been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria," Hambling said, "the U.S. military never discusses their use and no video has ever been released as far as I know."

Among the expanded arsenal being sent from the U.S. there are also thousands of anti-armor weapons, missiles and rifles.

Follow Newsweek's live blog for updates on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.