WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Army is poised to award a contract for longer-range, harder-hitting kamikaze drones for Ukraine more than five months after they were pledged to the fight against Russia, according to the Pentagon.
The research and development contract for 10 of the Switchblade 600 drones in question, made by AeroVironment, is expected in the next 30 days, Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said in an email to Defense News.
While Russia’s five-month-old invasion of Ukraine has mostly been an artillery war, thousands of drones are being used by both sides, and both the United States and Russia have been signaling that more are on the way.
“I think loitering munitions are going to be a significant part of that larger amount because they don’t require a lot of infrastructure, they don’t require a runway,” said Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian drones with the Center for Naval Analyses and Center for New American Security. “They may play a significant role in the way that the Russian military wants to attack Ukrainian soldiers, materiel, logistics and everything else on Russia’s list.”
The Pentagon has already sent Ukraine loitering munitions, which means the system itself is the payload: a number of the smaller, shorter-ranged Switchblade 300 variant, and the Phoenix Ghost. But observers say the Switchblade 600′s anti-armor payload, weighing in at 30 pounds and boasting longer loiter time, would offer an even better tool for finding and striking Russian troops and equipment during Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive in southern region of Kherson.
“This Switchblade capability can be instrumental as the Ukrainians are preparing their attack on Kherson and Crimea, because they can be launched beyond the range of Russian systems and inflict damage on Russian infrastructure,” Bendett said.
The appeal of loitering munitions is that they can provide reconnaissance and strike in a single package. And although less sophisticated drones can be used to spot Russian targets for their artillery, Russian forces have been using electronic warfare to trace them to their pilots and strike back.
“There have been a lot of losses among commercial drone operators on both sides, and the further away from combat you can launch your UAV, the better off you are,” Bendett said.
The 300 variant weighs 5.5 pounds, can fly 10 kilometers and loiter 15 minutes, while the 120-pound 600 version can fly 40 kilometers and loiter in the air for 40 minutes, according to the manufacturer.
The greater longevity and heavier payload would help Ukrainian forces target Russia’s armored, self-propelled artillery, in particular, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“You can use a 300 maybe to damage a radar, but the more a Russian target is armored and the less Russian forces are in the open, the more you’re going to want the Switchblade 600,” Bowman said. “They have the same name, but they’re very different systems with very different target sets ― and they’d both be incredibly helpful to Ukrainian forces now and in the coming weeks.”
It’s unclear when the Switchblade 600 will arrive in Ukraine. The U.S. has quickly surged millions of dollars worth of military aid to Ukraine, but the Switchblade 600 is a “notable and unfortunate exception where we’re not moving as fast as we should be,” Bowman said.
Part of the lag in getting the 600 to Ukraine is that unlike the earlier 300 variant, it’s not considered a fielded capability and, because it’s still in the prototype phase, must complete testing and evaluation. According to Maxwell, the Pentagon spokesperson, the delivery date will be set once the contract is finalized.
Meanwhile, beyond loitering munitions, the Pentagon pledged last week it would send Ukraine the Insitu-made ScanEagle, a long-endurance, low-altitude reconnaissance drone intended to help guide targeting for Ukrainian artillery.
The most well-known drone in Ukraine’s arsenal has been the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, a medium-altitude, long endurance drone, capable of reconnaissance but also striking and returning for re-use.
Russian has been publicizing its use of loitering munitions, namely the KUB along with the Lancet, both made by Kalashnikov subsidiary Zala. Russia has reportedly shown signs it plans to buy drones from Iran ― which could flood the war zone with hundreds more drones, Bendett said.
“Ukraine does need these munitions because they provide an excellent standoff capability,” Bendett said. “And they provide an excellent reminder to the Russians that they are not safe in Ukraine. Their infrastructure, their soldiers and their equipment are not safe because at any given point they may be hit by a Ukrainian UAV.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.