WASHINGTON, April 6 (Reuters) – A small number of Ukrainians have been trained in the United States on how to operate killer “Switchblade” drones, single-use weapons that fly into their targets and detonate on impact, a senior U.S. defense official disclosed on Wednesday.
The Ukrainians undergoing training on the Switchblades and other weaponry number less than a dozen. They had arrived in the United States for regular military education programs prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. “We took advantage of the opportunity to pull them aside for a couple of days and provide them some training, particularly on the Switchblades UAV,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “UAV” refers to an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The United States withdrew its military advisers from Ukraine ahead of Russia’s invasion, seeking to avoid a direct military confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces that could escalate into a broader war. As a result of the withdrawal, the United States and NATO have largely constrained their provision of weaponry to Ukraine to systems that Ukrainian forces knew how to operate prior to Russia’s invasion. That includes U.S. weapons that have given Ukraine an edge against Russian forces, like Javelin anti-tank missiles and portable Stinger surface-to-air missiles that can target Russian aircraft. It also includes Soviet-era systems that are still in the inventories of some NATO nations.
But Switchblades, which are relatively easy-to-use and could be highly effective in attacking Russian ground forces, had not been part of training packages prior to Russia’s invasion. The drones are made by AeroVironment Inc(AVAV.O). The drones, which have a range of 40 km (25 miles), can be used against vehicles including trucks, tanks and armored personnel carriers.
In recent testimony, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Celeste Wallander, said the United States had committed to sending Ukraine 100 Switchblade systems. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday that the Pentagon is sending Ukraine two variants of the Switchblade, including one with an anti-armor warhead. “The Switchblade 600 and 300 will move as quickly as they possibly can,” Austin told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. Ukrainians are expected to quickly use the first 100 systems sent.
Comment: A hundred systems and a dozen trained operators doesn’t sound like much, but each system consists of ten drones and those dozen trained Ukrainian operators will quickly train more. Plus there are already a lot of drone operators in the Ukrainian forces. I’m pretty sure those twelve being trained were trained in the tactical employment of the Switchblade in addition to just learning how to operate it. We employed over 4,000 in Afghanistan so I’m sure there are lessons learned.
The Switchblade is said to be easy to operate. I’m sure it’s easier than the old wire-guided Dragon and TOW. I trained on the Dragon and it was a bear to use. You had to keep the crosshairs on the target through the entire flight while on your knees only a thousand meters from your target. If your aim caused the missile to make too many corrections, the maneuvering rockets would quickly be exhausted and you would lose control of the missile. But for light infantry tank hunter-killer teams, that was the best we had. The Javelin is a fire and forget system with a way better range than the old Dragon. You also don’t have to worry about the back blast when using it in an urban environment. The Ukrainian Stugna-P is fired remotely. The operator can stay under cover and control the missile with a video screen and joystick. One even took out a Russian attack helicopter a few days ago. Come to think of it, a Stugna-P operator could probably transition to the Switchblade quickly.
All these man portable ATGMs and systems like the Switchblade makes light infantry and lightly wheeled infantry a potent force on any battlefield. If we keep up the flow of these weapons, the Ukrainians just may be able to attrit the Russians into submission.