Seven months after it first arrived in Ukraine, a US-made Switchblade-600 loitering munition has possibly fallen into Russian hands after it was downed over Donetsk, according to multiple videos on social media.
A viral clip posted by many Twitter and Telegram accounts showed a nearly intact unit that has sustained superficial damage, with speculations that Russian engineers will now study the technology behind the advanced drone.
This is the second time the Switchblade-600 had fallen into Russian hands, with the first instance in late April, when another video showed Russian soldiers examining the rear part of the UAV with the engine, with the front portion reportedly missing after a strike.
That specimen naturally would have been less useful for any adversary nation, especially Russia, which would be interested in its electro-optical, warhead, and guidance systems located in the front.
This also becomes the fourth major Western weapons system that Russia has been reported to have captured and possibly reverse-engineered to counter the weapon and improve its technical capabilities in military technology and engineering.
Russia has laid its hands on a sample of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rocket, a Storm Shadow missile, and an MQ-9 Reaper UAV that Russian media claimed its navy fished out of the Black Sea waters after downing it on March 14.
Videos Of Switchblade Downed
Videos on leading Twitter handles showed a cracked and extensively damaged Switchblade-600 placed on a skeletal mount in a heavily wooded area, with many panels and coverings from the main body missing. However, the drone overall is intact, with little core structural damage that would harm the electronic components inside.
The video begins with the front EO system being recorded, with the camera moving down to the back, where the fold-out push-propellers are. The UAV is placed upside down on the stand, based on the position of the EO camera and the sniveling fixture that holds the fold-out front and rear wings.
While all posts said the drone was found in Donetsk, they differed on how it was shot down. Some Telegram channels said the Switchblade-600 failed to detonate, while others said it was brought down by Russian Electronic Warfare (EW).
Failure to detonate entails the drone having to hit a hard surface but not activating the warhead, which would nevertheless translate to the front portion sustaining severe damage. Therefore, the intact EO system and the front body suggest the EW claim to be likely.
Russia To Reverse Engineer It?
Russia is likely to study the drone’s guidance system, telemetry units, and optics technology in the EO camera – an area in which Russia has traditionally lagged.
With its efforts to increase domestic manufacturing of aerospace electronic components and sensors, primarily sourced through Western imports before sanctions, Russian engineers are likely to replicate the devices in their own industries’ government-funded and in-house projects.
For instance, its Ghoul and Privet 82 kamikaze drones distinguish themselves as cheap, mass-produced, expendable UAVs that can still have a significant tactical impact. It can be safely assumed that attempts can be made to incorporate some of the devices and electronic circuitry after attempting to copy them.
Ukraine initially used the Switchblade-300 when the war broke out, with many popular videos of the UAV striking Russian ground troops and light armored vehicles. The system’s use gradually declined as Ukraine began running out of drones, and Russia, too, improved its air defense.
The first Switchblade-600s reportedly arrived in Ukraine in November or December 2022. Then, on February 24, the US announced a new delivery of Switchblade-600s as part of a $2 billion arms package without specifying the quantity.
⚡️An American Switchblade-600 kamikaze UAV in Russian hands after it was grounded by electronic warfare pic.twitter.com/MzJuE5GIkF
— What the media hides. (@narrative_hole) July 24, 2023
The Switchblade-300 variant weighs 2.5 kilograms, including the warhead, and has an endurance of 15 minutes. The Switchblade-600 is an extended-range variant that can reach 40 kilometers, weighs 54.4 kilograms (all-inclusive weight), and is equipped with a dual electro-optical and infrared sensor suite.
The heavier warhead can enable it to hit tanks and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs), making it an effective anti-armor weapon.
Costly Yet Deadly
The Switchblades are designed for pinpoint strikes against enemy personnel or unprotected weapons, such as mortar launchers or exposed machine gun emplacements.
They have a remarkable feature called “waive off” capability to prevent collateral damage. For example, the operator can adjust the blast radius so the drone kills only the driver of a vehicle but not a passenger. According to AeroVironment, the weapon can be waved off up to two seconds before the impact. The drone costs as little as $6,000, by some estimates.
The UAV has cameras onboard but is often used with a mini surveillance drone for better battlefield awareness. The two drones are integrated with sensor-to-shooter software that enables instant transfer of target coordinates from the surveillance drone to the Switchblade-300. The company says the Switchblade-300 system can be set up in less than two minutes.