JAVELIN ANTI-TANK Missiles shipped from America to Ukraine are taking a heavy toll on Russian armed forces. Now the Americans are sending a batch of 100 slightly different man-portable weapons – so-called loitering ammunition. The difference is that with a Javelin, you must select the target before launching the missile. Not with loose ammunition. Rather, you can fly it into a multi-target environment and select the richest of the crowd to attack.
A modern successor to the bazooka, the javelin weighs 20 kg with its launcher and can hit something up to 4 km away. Switchblade, as the loitering ammo in question is called, is more subtle. The version most likely to be delivered (although no one will confirm this) weighs just 2.5kg and still has a range of 10km. Although it cannot penetrate armor, its shell-sized warhead is effective against unarmored vehicles and squads. That, according to Nick Reynolds, an analyst at RUSI, a British defense think tank, notes that they are particularly effective against artillery batteries, be they guns or rocket launchers – which are “softer” targets than tanks. This may become increasingly important as Ukrainian cities are under heavy artillery fire.
Like Javelin, Switchblade is launched from a tube. But instead of being a sleek rocket capable of flying supersonic, it’s a miniature plane – a drone – with wings that unfold after launch (hence the name) and an electric propeller that propels it at a leisurely 100km/h for one Flight spurts that can last up to 15 minutes. It is controlled with a tablet that displays video from an optical camera and an infrared thermal camera located on board the vehicle. When the operator spots a target, it locks onto it and the drone accelerates towards it at up to 160 km/h, automatically chasing it if it evades.
Robert Bunker, Director of Research and Analysis C/O Futures, a security consultancy in California, says the precision it provides allows Switchblade to focus on high-value targets: not just artillery, but artillery unit headquarters and command vehicles as well. The close-up views from the camera and thermal imager allow for careful selection of targets.
Additionally, if the operator realizes a mistake has been made as the drone approaches, the attack can be aborted and the weapon flown back into the sky until another target is identified. This gives Switchblade an edge over another breed of loitering, armed drones. These rocket-carrying Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey helped Ukraine build up its defenses in the early stages of the war. But they are the size of light aircraft and require significant supporting infrastructure such as runways and fueling facilities. A switchblade, on the other hand, can be carried around in a backpack (it’s about the size of a baguette) and deployed when needed. It’s also cheaper, much easier to distribute, and can be used with minimal training.
Although thousands of Switchblades have been deployed by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since their introduction in 2011, they have so far flown under both metaphorical and physical radar. No video of them in combat has been released. And they were only exported to Britain, probably America’s most trusted ally.
However, Ukraine is well prepared to use them. Its military planners realized some time ago that loitering munitions could be an effective counterbalance to a small country threatened by a large neighbor. In 2017, the government signed an agreement with WB Group, a Polish electronics company, to buy supplies for its catapult-launched Warmate Loiterer, which weighs 5.3kg and has a range of 15km – although legal issues hampered its planned deployment last year and whether it will be used now, no public Information. Nonetheless, the Defense Ministry announced in December that special loitering munitions units would be formed within the Ukrainian army, which would act as parts of “brigades of the future.”
In addition, several Ukrainian companies are developing loiterers. The most advanced project is operated by Athlon Avia, one of many companies formed before, during and after the 2014 Crimean crisis to help the armed forces with its products that ST-35, is a loitering ammo. This weapon passed flight tests with the Ukrainian army in 2020 – although it has not been announced whether it has already been used.
the ST-35 is started in an unusual way. Instead of being launched from the ground, it’s carried into the air by a multicopter drone, which acts as a communications link after launch. This results in an effective control range of 30 km.
Three more Ukrainian companies – Adrones, CDET and Cobra – are also working on the idea, and although at the beginning of the current war neither had a deployable system, experience has shown that Ukrainian gunsmiths excel in improvisation and can quickly create serviceable products in difficult conditions. Weapons that offer the potential to strike invisibly at long range are particularly valuable, whether imported from America or Poland or rushed from local workshops. Their success could also shed light on how important they could be in future wars. ■
To enjoy more of our mind-expanding science coverage, subscribe to Simply Science, our weekly newsletter.
Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis
This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the heading Loitering on purpose.