The U.S. has trained a small number of Ukrainian soldiers to use Switchblade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the “kamikaze” tactical aerial drones sent to the war-ravaged country as part of a military assistance package, according to a Pentagon official.
A shipment of 100 Switchblade UAVs, announced several weeks ago and supplied from U.S. military stock, arrived in Ukraine earlier this week, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
The precision, single-use Switchblade drones are a hybrid weapon, or “a kind of piloted missile that can also be a scout,” said an article in Popular Science.
The short-range piloted missiles are launched from a tube like a mortar and come in two sizes: the Switchblade 300 is nearly 6 pounds, while the Switchblade 600 weighs in around 120 pounds. They’re considered “loitering munitions,” and can change course mid-flight.
If Switchblades are successful, however, they don’t fly back.
The drones augment Ukraine’s existing supply of tactical armed UAVs, such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, which have played a critical role in Ukraine’s fight against invading Russian forces. The TB2s are capable of carrying up to four laser-guided munitions that have a reputation for being effective against ground-based targets, such as Russian tanks and mobile air defense systems.
At the onset of the war, Ukraine had at least a dozen of the TB2 systems it purchased in 2019, with reports suggesting it could have up to around 48 total, according to a report by Lauren Kahn, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kirby said he would not comment on the specific Switchblade variants sent to Ukraine, but said U.S. military officials were “going to keep talking to them and working with—and helping them get additional ones if they need it.”
The Switchblade system is not one the Ukrainian military typically uses, he noted.
“It is not a very complex system. It doesn’t require a lot of training,” Kirby said. “An individual could be suitably trained on how to use the Switchblade drone in about two days or so.”
A “very small number” of Ukrainian soldiers who had been in the U.S. for military educational purposes since last fall were trained to use the Switchblade UAV system, he said. “We took the opportunity to—having them still in the country, to give them a couple of days’ worth of training on the Switchblade,” so they could train others when they returned to Ukraine, he said.
Tuesday, President Biden authorized an additional $100 million in military aid. “This $100 million is designed to help us meet an urgent Ukrainian need for additional Javelin anti-armor systems, which the United States has been providing to Ukraine,” Kirby said.
The aid package comes close on the heels of a $300 million security assistance package announced by the Department of Defense (DOD) last Friday and earmarked for armored vehicles, laser-guided rocket systems, ammunition and gear, as well as drones. Aerial systems in the DOD package include Switchblades, as well as Puma surveillance drones, a 15-pound, hand-launched UAV equipped with optical and infrared cameras
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the U.S. has committed more than $1.7 billion in security assistance, according to DOD.