There are drones that fire missiles and then there are ones which are missiles themselves. Called the Kamikaze or suicide drones, these are unmanned aircraft that are part of the tranche of weapons that are being sent by the US to Ukraine to assist their fight against Russia.
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Following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s passionate speech seeking additional help as Russian forces pushed to encircle major cities, US President Joe Biden announced $800 million in new military aid for Ukraine, including 800 additional Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 9,000 antitank weapons, 100 tactical drones and a range of small arms including machine guns and grenade launchers. “This new package on its own is going to provide unprecedented assistance to Ukraine,” Biden said, adding that the inclusion of drones “demonstrates our commitment to sending our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defence.”
We take a look at what these drones are and how they aim to help the Ukrainians in their fight.
What are Kamikaze drones?
Also called Switchblade drones, these are small unmanned aircraft that are packed with explosives that can be flown directly at a tank or a group of troops that are destroyed when it hits the target and explodes.
The single-use weapons are cheaper than most US drones, and come in two sizes, according to AeroVironment, the manufacturer. The Switchblade 300 weighs about five pounds, flies up to 15 minutes at a time, and is designed to be carried in a backpack, assisting small infantry units tracking the Russians’ movements. The Switchblade 600, by comparison, weighs about 50 pounds, flies up to 40 minutes, and is known as a “loitering missile” that can target armoured vehicles.
The drones have the capability of going past traditional defences to strike its targets and also cost a fraction of what the larger counterparts do. People around the world are usually accustomed to images of Hellfire missiles raining down from Predator and Reaper drones to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan or Yemen. However, the drone war has changed as the $6,000 Kamikaze drones are fast replacing the $150,000 Predators. The small lethal drones are difficult to detect on radar, and they can even be programmed to hit targets without human intervention, based on facial recognition.
The Switchblade® 300 Sensor to Shooter Kit combines the superior ISR capabilities of AeroVironment’s small UAS (Puma™, Raven®, Wasp®) with the precision strike capabilities of the Switchblade® 300 loitering missile system. Learn more: https://t.co/DY4UmGLi3e pic.twitter.com/hhwMvzZsV8
— AeroVironment (@aerovironment) March 1, 2022
Weighing just five-and-a-half pounds, including its small warhead, the Switchblade can be taken into battle in a backpack and fly up to 7 miles to hit a target. They are called Switchblade because their bladelike wings spring out on launch.
The drone, made by AeroVironment Inc., has been in the arsenal of US commandos since it was secretly sent to Afghanistan in 2010 for use against the Taliban. Army officials have described it as a flying shotgun.
Peer and near-peer adversaries are dangerous because they can shift the conflict horizon, AeroVironment gives our customers the ability to proceed with certainty and operate #BeyondTheHorizon, wherever it is found. pic.twitter.com/WMKpnbBLdf
— AeroVironment (@aerovironment) December 29, 2021
The Switchblade has a feature that allows the operator to adjust the blast radius. So, it can kill the driver of a vehicle but not a passenger, for example. The weapon can be “waved off” up to two seconds before impact, AeroVironment says, in the event of a mistake or a risk to civilians. The capability to abort an attack assumes importance at a time when the US Army had killed 10 civilians, seven of them children, in a drone strike in Afghanistan that officials say was a tragic mistake. A Pentagon review found that the strike team was unaware of the presence of children when it decided to fire. They added that a child was observed through a video feed of the target area after the launch but by then, the Hellfire missile couldn’t be recalled.
The Switchblade also has cameras that show a target seconds before impact. The company’s website says that the drone cruises at 63 miles per hour and provides “operators with real-time video downlinks for a centralised view of the area of operation”.
The Switchblade drone doesn’t launch missiles, but is itself a missile.@KenDilanianNBC reports from the Utah desert where he saw a demonstration of the so-called “killer” drone being directed to an empty truck before exploding. pic.twitter.com/D0SQGFyxkF
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) December 7, 2021
Is the US the only country that has such drones?
Not really. Although the Kamikaze might be the most advanced form of this genre of drones, Russia, China, Israel, Iran and Turkey all have some version of it.
Iranian-backed militias have used small drones in 10 attacks this year on US bases in Iraq, the military says. Azerbaijan had used small Turkish-made drones against the Armenian military last year, bringing a decisive end to a stalemate over a disputed enclave that had gone on for years. A video released by Azerbaijan shows the drones hitting artillery, tank and troop emplacements surrounded by trenches. There have been also multiple occasions where Russia has used such suicide drones to launch attacks in Ukraine following their invasion. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels used them to blow up Saudi oil facilities in 2019.