US Army plans major purchase of loitering munition to counter China

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The US Army has big plans for next year, aiming to order 1,000 loitering munitions. Specifically, they’re looking at the Switchblade 600, which gained a boost in its reputation during the Ukraine conflict. According to sources, this order is a key part of the U.S. Army’s Replicator initiative. 

Photo credit: FlightGlobal

The Replicator Program, driven by the United States Department of Defense, is all about ramping up the production and deployment of autonomous systems and cutting-edge tech. This program addresses the fast-paced and complex nature of modern warfare by giving the U.S. military a technological advantage. It’s not just about creating new systems but ensuring they’re produced and deployed both quickly and efficiently. 

A standout feature of the Replicator program is its focus on collaboration with private industry and academia. The Pentagon understands that innovation isn’t limited to traditional defense contractors. By partnering with a diverse range of entities, the program aims to leverage a broader spectrum of expertise and technological innovation.

Photo credit: Stephen Losey

A look at conflict with China

If current events like the wars in Ukraine and Gaza dominate today’s headlines, the Pentagon is already looking toward possible future confrontations, particularly with China. This potential conflict is what drives the newly announced Replicator program. 

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Replicator initiative last August with a twofold purpose. Firstly, the Pentagon aims to deploy large numbers of cost-effective drones to counter China’s growing influence in the near term. Secondly, and more importantly, the goal is to establish a robust technology procurement process to address the Department of Defense’s most pressing operational needs in the long run. 

Over fiscal years 2024 and 2025, the Pentagon plans to allocate $1 billion to this effort. The funding will come from various sources, such as prior-year appropriations, a reprogramming request, and a national security supplement approved in August, with additional funds from the yet-to-be-approved FY-25 budget proposal. 

There were tests

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the U.S. Army has ordered Switchblades, but it marks the largest order yet. It’s worth noting that the Pentagon previously purchased 100 units of these kamikaze drones last year, mainly for testing and strategic evaluations. 

Photo: Aerovironment

“This was an innovation that we worked on collectively together. This is a munition that we then incorporated as part of Replicator Tranche One,” stated Gen. James Mingus, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, during a recent hearing. “And now we’re gearing up to scale it to over 1,000 units in the next year or so.” 

Hicks mentioned last month that the department had begun shipping Replicator systems to the Indo-Pacific Command in early May. However, the Pentagon chose not to disclose the specific systems deployed or their quantities.

The 600

Photo credit: AeroVironment

The Switchblade 600 is a loitering munition developed by AeroVironment, designed for precision strikes against armored targets. It is part of the Switchblade family, which includes smaller variants like the Switchblade 300. The 600 model is specifically engineered to offer greater range, endurance, and payload capacity compared to its predecessors. 

In terms of dimensions, the Switchblade 600 has a wingspan of approximately 4 feet [1.2 meters] when deployed. The entire system, including the launcher, is designed to be portable and can be carried by a single operator. This portability makes it suitable for a variety of tactical scenarios. 

The specifications of the Switchblade 600 include a weight of around 50 pounds [22.7 kilograms]. It is equipped with an electric propulsion system, which allows it to operate quietly and efficiently. The munition is launched from a tube and can be deployed quickly in the field.

Photo: YouTube

50 miles operational range

The operating principle of the Switchblade 600 involves a combination of GPS and optical guidance systems. After launch, the munition can loiter in the air for an extended period, allowing the operator to identify and select targets. Once a target is designated, the Switchblade 600 can dive toward it with high precision, ensuring minimal collateral damage. 

The payload of the Switchblade 600 is designed to be effective against armored vehicles and fortified positions. It carries an anti-armor warhead, which can penetrate and destroy targets upon impact. This makes it a versatile tool for modern combat scenarios. 

The operational range of the Switchblade 600 is one of its key features. It can loiter for up to 40 minutes and has a range of over 50 miles [80 kilometers]. This extended range allows operators to engage targets from a safe distance, reducing the risk to personnel and increasing the munition’s effectiveness in various combat environments.

Switchblades in Ukraine

On April 23, 2023, the U.S. Army stopped buying more Switchblade 300 drones. Their performance in Ukraine was disappointing, especially against Russian tanks and artillery, and they were much more expensive than commercial alternatives. In 2022, each unit, including the airframe, sensors, guidance, warhead, data link, and launcher, cost $58,063. 

This price doesn’t include extra costs like the guidance unit, which is about $30,000, or other expenses for fielding, spares, support, training rounds, and simulators. Ukrainian forces prefer using commercial drones with cheaper explosives, costing around $700 or less. 

In October 2023, the U.S. Army ordered over 100 Switchblade 600s as part of the Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance [LASSO] program. These will be used at the company level. On June 11, 2024, a Switchblade drone hit a Russian Buk missile launcher in Sarabash [formerly Komunarivka], Donetsk. The drone traveled more than 30 kilometers to reach its target.

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