March 18, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Ukraine is getting Switchblade. It should be just the first wave of loitering munitions for Kyiv.

Two experts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argue that loitering munitions are the right weapon for Ukraine, and call on its supporters to open their arsenals.
March 18, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Ukraine is getting Switchblade. It should be just the first wave of loitering munitions for Kyiv.

Two experts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argue that loitering munitions are the right weapon for Ukraine, and call on its supporters to open their arsenals.

Hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an impassioned plea for help to the U.S. Congress on March 16, President Joe Biden announced that Washington will provide $800 million in additional security assistance to Ukraine, including 100 Switchblade loitering munitions (LMs), commonly referred to as “suicide drones.” While members of Congress have pushed for the potential transfer to Ukraine of Polish MiG-29s, the White House is wise to prioritize weapon systems that can quickly bolster Ukrainian combat capability while minimizing logistical burdens and vulnerability to Russian attack.

The problem, however, is Ukraine will likely expend those 100 Switchblades in mere days, and the variant of the Switchblade Washington is most likely sending is of no serious use against Russian armor. Accordingly, Washington should work with NATO allies to urgently provide Ukraine with additional shipments consisting of greater quantities and varieties of loitering munitions, or LMs.

LMs are a combination of missiles and aerial surveillance drones. They blend the ability to maneuver, conduct surveillance, and strike targets into a single platform, reducing the time between detection and engagement of a target. That could prove decisive for Ukrainian defenders who may encounter more close-quarters urban combat in the coming days.

LMs vary in size and capability. Loiter time above potential targets can range from minutes to hours, while their munition can be sized to target troops, equipment (with and without armor), or military infrastructure. The systems carry cameras to identify targets and transmit images back to the operator. LMs can be difficult for adversaries to detect and destroy because of their low radar, visual, and thermal signatures.

Some LMs can be mounted on and launched from ground vehicles. Smaller versions, such as the Switchblade, can be carried even in backpacks and employed by individual soldiers. This will provide Ukrainian infantry squads with increased combat power that can be easily transported, concealed, and operated. And unlike manned aircraft and larger drones, LMs don’t depend on airfields for employment. That will create real problems for Russian forces, which will have to assume that any Ukrainian infantry may have this capability.

Ukraine has already employed some types of drones during the conflict. The Ukrainians have used their Turkish TB-2 armed drones, which are not loitering munitions, to devastating effect, as demonstrated in numerous videos on social media. Turkey provided Ukraine with a much-needed resupply of these drones during the conflict’s first week. TB-2s, however, are quite large, with a wingspan of approximately 12 meters, and must operate from fixed airbases that can and have been targeted by Russia.

To help address urgent military requirements for smaller drones, Ukraine has recruited drone hobbyists operating commercial drones to conduct reconnaissance, and Ukrainians have sometimes resorted to jerry-rigging explosives to the bottom of commercial drones. Ukraine has even created a basic LM system by pairing the Punisher drone with a smaller reconnaissance drone called Spectre, which together have reportedly conducted strikes.

The United States and likeminded allies should immediately send more inexpensive commercial systems instead of forcing Ukraine to rely on Chinese DJI drones, which might compromise the operator’s information or be restricted from flying in certain areas via geofencing. But LMs can fill an important gap between the TB-2s (which rely on airfields and incur a significant logistical burden) and makeshift commercial drones that take time to prepare and are less effective than LMs in targeting ground forces.

Accordingly, the United States and likeminded allies should systematically equip the Ukrainian military with a large arsenal of purpose-built LMs. This is especially important because Russia may be starting to jam the command and control of TB-2 drones. Moscow has also begun to better integrate its own reconnaissance and combat drones, including the ZALA KYB loitering munition.

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Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy