Drone and drone operator

Switchblade Drones and You: Unmanned Warfare in 2023

by Matt Collins

Switchblade drones are the latest and most terrifying evolution in twenty-first century unmanned warfare.

They resemble small remote control airplanes. Launched from a special tube, the latest SB600 Switchblade drones can be carried in backpacks by infantry, then deployed to fly up to 40 kilometers before their batteries run dry.

More than just a drone or reconnaissance vehicle, Switchblade drones are what's called "loitering munitions." That means they're able to stay aloft and monitor the battlefield for a given period of time before swooping in and executing a kamikaze attack.

With the lightest models weighing in at just 5.55 lbs, Switchblade drones are strictly limited in terms of payload. But they can be remote-controlled for pinpoint strikes against hardened enemy positions—targeting enemy soldiers or even tanks with their newest anti-armor payloads.

Footage featured on Popular Mechanics showed the aftermath of a Switchblade 600 drone attack on Russian tanks and trenches. The footage is gruesome but decisive.

Unlike supersonic Javelin missiles, Switchblade drones can only fly at about 70 miles—but its small size makes it practically invisible, and it can be flown over much farther distances than a Javelin or other shoulder-mounted anti-tank weapon.

These drones are flexible, deployable from practically anywhere, and increasingly devastating as a force multiplier. Make no mistake: The drone represents some of the most transformative, game-changing new technology to hit the battlefield in the last century.

So today, we're putting Switchblade drones under the microscope and seeing how it's changing modern warfare. In the end, we'll evaluate its potential as a weapon for the delivery of nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) weaponry.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    A Brief History of Drone Warfare

  • 02

    Transforming Warfare with the Predator Drone

  • 03

    Loitering Munitions

  • 04

    Enter the Switchblade Drone

  • 05

    How Switchblade Drones Work

  • 06

    A "Gray Area" on the Battlefield?

  • 07

    NBC Drone Potential

  • 08

    NBC Drone Protection

  • 09

    The Future of Drone Warfare

  • 10

    Frequently Asked Questions

A Brief History of Drone Warfare

Few developments since gunpowder have had such a profound impact on warfare as the rise of unmanned drones.

These technological marvels, controlled remotely and capable of carrying out missions without risking human lives, have forever altered the landscape of combat.

The roots of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be traced back to the early 20th century—due in large part to the extreme danger of combat aviation in World War I.

In 1916, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane—a precursor to modern drones—captured the imagination of military strategists. The behemoth weighed over 1,500 pounds, utilizing gyroscopes and other primitive technologies to maintain its course. At a time when combat pilots counted their life expectancy in weeks, any unmanned alternative seemed worth considering.

The Hewitt-Sperry automatic airplane

The Hewitt-Sperry automatic airplane (Image courtesy of Historic Mysteries)

And while it never saw action during World War I, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane laid the groundwork for future drone development.

Fast-forward to the 1950s and the advent of the Cold War marked a significant turning point. Facing the threat of war with Russia—and wanting all the help they could get—the United States began experimenting with remotely piloted vehicles, culminating in the deployment of the Ryan Firebee in 1959.

Initially conceived for reconnaissance missions, the Firebee proved its mettle in combat during the Vietnam War, where it gathered invaluable intelligence and served as a decoy for enemy air defenses.

The following decade, the 1980s, witnessed another leap forward as advances in microelectronics and computer technology paved the way for smaller, more agile UAVs.

Then, in 1988, the Israeli Defense Forces showcased their groundbreaking drone, the IAI Scout, during the Iran-Iraq War. The Scout's success prompted other nations to invest in similar technologies, fueling a new era of unmanned aerial warfare.

This would become a running theme in the development of drone technology, too—with battlefields proving to be the ultimate testing ground for new hardware like Switchblade Drones Ukraine.

As the new millennium dawned, drones entered a golden age, enabled by rapid technological advancements and the Global War on Terror.

The United States spearheaded this revolution, introducing drones like the Predator and Reaper to strike high-value targets with unprecedented precision.

Transforming Warfare with the Predator Drone

When it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the Predator drone is arguably the most iconic–and with good reason. After all, this revolutionary technology has redefined the way military operations are conducted, providing unparalleled surveillance capabilities and precision strikes.

The birth of the Predator drone can be traced back to the early 1990s when the United States sought to develop a remotely piloted aircraft for reconnaissance purposes.

The first operational variant, known as the RQ-1 Predator, entered service in 1995. Equipped with cameras and sensors, the Predator quickly proved its worth as an aerial surveillance platform, offering real-time intelligence to military commanders.

But the true turning point for the Predator came with the integration of armed capabilities.

In the early 2000s, advancements in technology allowed for the development of the armed variant, the MQ-1 Predator. This version was equipped with Hellfire missiles, transforming the drone from a mere observer to a potent offensive weapon.

An MQ-1 predator drone flying over a vast desert

An MQ-1 predator drone (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Predator drone's first significant combat deployment occurred in the early stages of the Global War on Terror.

In this military theater, the ability to loiter for extended periods over hostile territory, gather intelligence, and strike high-value targets with surgical precision proved invaluable. The drone's advanced sensors and long-range capabilities allowed operators to monitor and engage targets from thousands of miles away, reducing the risks faced by traditional manned aircraft and ground forces.

The Predator's most notable use came in the targeted killings of high-profile individuals, particularly in counterterrorism operations. In this way, its ability to track and eliminate specific targets with minimal collateral damage revolutionized the concept of aerial warfare.

Amid this seismic shift in warfare, the drone's persistent presence over conflict zones struck fear into the hearts of adversaries, as it could strike swiftly and without warning.

The Predator's success prompted further developments, leading to the MQ-9 Reaper, an upgraded and more capable successor.

The Reaper boasted enhanced endurance, higher payload capacity, and improved sensors, solidifying its status as a dominant force in unmanned aerial warfare. Additionally, its versatility allowed for a wide range of mission profiles, including intelligence gathering, surveillance, close air support, and even combat search and rescue.

The impact of Predator drones extends beyond military operations, as the surveillance capabilities of these drones have been utilized in disaster response efforts, border security, and law enforcement. In these domains, drones’ ability to provide real-time situational awareness and monitor vast areas from above has proven invaluable.

As technology continues to advance, the future of drone warfare holds immense possibilities. Ongoing developments in artificial intelligence, swarming capabilities, and autonomous decision-making may shape the next generation of unmanned systems.

At the moment, these technological developments are currently shifting the focus from large drones like the Predator and Reaper to more minor, single-use alternatives known as "loitering munitions.”

Loitering Munitions

Loitering munitions systems have electrified the concept of precision warfare, combining the capabilities of drones and guided missiles into a single, lethal package.

The origins of loitering munitions, or LMs, can be traced back to the late 20th century when militaries worldwide began exploring the integration of drones and guided munitions. Simply put, the concept behind these systems was to create a hybrid platform that could provide persistent surveillance while also delivering precise strikes on targets of interest.

The first operational loitering munition, known as the Harpy, was introduced in the early 1990s by Israel.

The Harpy drone in action

The Harpy in action (Image courtesy of The Aviationist)

The Harpy was designed to loiter in the sky for extended periods, scanning the battlefield for enemy radar emissions.

Once a target was identified, the Harpy would dive towards it, effectively becoming a self-destructing missile. This innovative approach blurred the line between reconnaissance and offensive capabilities, ushering in a new era of warfare.

Recent advancements in technology led to the development of more sophisticated loitering munitions with enhanced capabilities. These systems evolved to include advanced sensors, improved autonomy, and longer loitering times, making them even more effective in both intelligence gathering and targeted strikes.

To be sure, loitering munitions have proven their worth in various military conflicts.

They have been utilized in both conventional and asymmetric warfare, providing armed forces with a powerful tool to neutralize high-value targets and eliminate threats with precision and minimal collateral damage.

Plus, their ability to stay aloft for extended periods allows operators to maintain persistent surveillance and adapt to dynamic battlefield situations.

This advantage is bolstered by LMs’ integration of advanced sensors, such as electro-optical and infrared cameras, which enable operators to identify and track targets accurately–even in challenging environments.

Another key advantage lies in their portability.

Loitering munitions can be deployed from land, sea, or air platforms, providing flexibility and adaptability to different operational scenarios.

Their compact size and lightweight construction allow for easy transport and rapid deployment, making them a valuable force multiplier for expeditionary forces.

Enter the Switchblade Drone

In the world of loitering munitions, Switchblade drones are currently leading the pack.

The genesis of Switchblade drones can be traced back to the early 2000s when military strategists sought to develop a more agile and versatile UAV capable of precise strikes. Their work resulted in the AeroVironment Switchblade, a revolutionary concept that blended traditional drones' reconnaissance capabilities with a missile's offensive potential.

Introduced in 2011, the AeroVironment Switchblade drones represented a paradigm shift in military operations.

A drone and its drone operator in the battlefield

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

With its collapsible design and lightweight construction, it could be easily carried and deployed by infantry soldiers on the ground.

With a high-resolution camera, soldiers could survey the battlefield and identify targets before engaging. Once a target was confirmed, kamikaze Switchblade drones could be launched precisely, accelerating towards its target at high speeds.

The first operational deployment of the Switchblade took place in Afghanistan in 2011. This marked a turning point in the effectiveness of close air support for ground troops, as the drone's rapid response time and accuracy proved instrumental in neutralizing threats. With its small size and low acoustic signature, it was able to operate discreetly, giving soldiers an added advantage on the battlefield.

The success of AeroVironment Switchblade drones spurred the development of similar Switchblade drones by other defense manufacturers.

These drones expanded the range of capabilities and addressed specific operational needs. Soon, the technology matured, and Switchblade drones became increasingly versatile, incorporating advanced features such as extended flight duration, improved video transmission, and increased payload capacity.

Beyond military applications, Switchblade drones have also found utility in law enforcement and security operations.

Their compact size and maneuverability make them invaluable tools for surveillance, crowd monitoring, and search-and-rescue missions. Consequently, law enforcement agencies have embraced these drones as force multipliers, enhancing situational awareness and minimizing risks during critical operations.

How Switchblade Drones Work

At the core of Switchblade drones lies a delicate balance of size, speed, and power.

The primary objective is to create a compact yet capable platform that ground troops can easily deploy while still packing a lethal punch. To achieve this, Switchblade drones employ a combination of advanced technologies, enabling seamless integration of surveillance and offensive capabilities.

The first key component of a Switchblade drone is its collapsible design, hence the "Switchblade" name.

This feature allows the drone to be folded into a compact form, making it highly portable and easily transportable by soldiers in the field. Dovetailing with this is the drone's lightweight construction, typically made from composite materials, ensures it remains agile and maneuverable during flight.

Once deployed by the operator, the drone is activated and enters a state of readiness. From this point, the operator has complete control over the drone's operations, using a handheld control unit to maneuver and direct its movements. The control unit features a high-resolution display that provides real-time video feed from the drone's onboard camera, giving operators an immersive view of the drone's surroundings.

Equipped with an integrated warhead, the drone can be guided toward a designated target with pinpoint accuracy. Operators can identify and track targets using the drone's camera feed, ensuring that strikes are conducted with maximum effectiveness and minimal collateral damage.

The speed at which a Switchblade drone operates is another defining factor in its success.

70 miles per hour might not be much compared to a Javelin missile, but it's still too fast for most targets to react. This swift response time provides a tactical advantage, enabling ground troops to neutralize threats swiftly and decisively.

A drone mid-flight

(Image courtesy of CBS News)

In terms of propulsion, Switchblade drones commonly utilize electric motors powered by lightweight rechargeable batteries. This propulsion system is crucial for keeping noise to a minimum. That low noise output enables the drone to operate undetected, allowing operators to maintain the element of surprise during engagements.

Switchblade drones are further enhanced by advanced features such as autonomous flight modes, obstacle avoidance systems, and swarming capabilities.

Autonomous flight modes enable the drone to navigate predetermined routes or hover over a specific area, freeing up the operator to focus on other critical tasks.

Meanwhile, obstacle avoidance systems utilize sensors and intelligent algorithms to detect and navigate around potential obstacles, ensuring the safety and successful completion of missions.

Finally, swarming capabilities enable multiple drones to operate in a coordinated manner, providing enhanced surveillance, target acquisition, and overwhelming offensive capabilities.

In sum, the mechanics of Switchblade drones seamlessly integrate size, speed, and power to create a lethal tool in modern warfare. Its collapsible design, precision strike capabilities, and rapid response time make it an invaluable asset for ground troops.

With ongoing advancements in technology, we can expect Switchblade drones to become even more sophisticated, expanding its capabilities and further transforming the landscape of aerial operations.

A "Gray Area" on the Battlefield?

This shift in tactics dramatically reshaped modern warfare, reducing the risks faced by troops on the ground and transforming the nature of aerial combat.

However, the proliferation of unmanned drones also brought forth ethical quandaries.

Critics argue that their use raises concerns over the erosion of traditional rules of engagement. It's also commonly argued that the remote nature of drone warfare distances operators from the consequences of their actions and potentially blurs the lines of accountability.

Against this backdrop, the issues of civilian casualties and the psychological toll on operators have sparked debates surrounding the moral implications of using unmanned systems in combat.

As society grapples with the ethical implications of drones and embraces their civilian applications, one thing is certain: the rise of unmanned drones represents a pivotal moment in history, forever reshaping the way we live our lives.

As technology continues to evolve, ethical considerations and regulatory frameworks will need to keep pace with these advancements.

NBC Drone Potential

UAVs have long since proven their ability to deliver precision strikes and eliminate key battlefield targets with startling accuracy.

But what about deadlier payloads?

What's the possibility of equipping a drone with weapons of mass destruction—including nuclear warheads, chemical warfare agents (CWAs), or even biological threats?

Well, you're obviously unlikely to see a nuclear warhead carried on the back of five-and-a-half-pound Switchblade drones. Smaller drones lack the capacity to carry a strategic nuclear warhead to its destination.

But tactical nuclear warheads are a different story entirely. Small "suitcase" nukes can weigh in at less than 200 lbs, meaning a larger Predator drone or even a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 could potentially turn the tides of battle by dropping a tactical nuke on the frontlines.

The core advantage of a drone-delivered nuke would be its viability as a "dead man's switch." This means that even if your country's entire power structure is wiped out, swift retribution can still be guaranteed—ideally as a deterrent from any alpha strike type of attack.

Russia's "Poseidon" drone is the perfect example of this.

Recently announced in March of 2018, Poseidon would be a nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle equipped with "salted" cobalt-based nuclear weapons. In this case, "salted" means that they're designed to create increased radiological fallout on the target. Poseidon would also be powered by a compact, gas-cooled nuclear reactor.

Russia's Poseidon drone infographic

(Image courtesy of Naval News)

In the event of an existential threat, Russia could deploy the Poseidon drone to wipe out entire carrier groups or even exact retribution on a foreign enemy.

The Russian Federation has even experimented with a nuclear-powered, supersonic cruise missile that would be nigh unto "unstoppable" according to claims from Putin. In either case, these doomsday devices would essentially mutually assured destruction, acting as a powerful deterrent against conventional or nuclear attacks.

In general, it seems like the automated deployment of nuclear weapons remains unlikely. The sheer gravity of using any nuclear weapon, along with the liability involved if the mission goes wrong, means that most nations would likely use a manned aircraft to deliver the bomb–doomsday devices aside.

The real threat of smaller Switchblade drones, at least in this author's opinion, is in the covert deployment of chemical and biological weapons.

It's a strategy that reaches back to the very beginning of biological warfare over 600 years ago during the Siege of Caffa. That's when Tartras slung Bubonic plague-riddled corpses over the city walls, aiming to infect the townspeople inside with plague.

Drones would serve the same essential purpose. Except instead of needing a trebuchet or catapult, they could be launched from miles away, crash to ground completely undetected, and spread concentrated airborne plague across an entire area. This is the kind of scenario where a swarm attack could prove extremely deadly—spreading a plague over areas almost wholly undetected.

The same goes for deadly nerve agents.

The lethal dose of VX gas is somewhere between 6-10 milligrams by dermal exposure. So even if a drone detonated just one kilogram of VX in the atmosphere over a crowded city, it could kill upwards of 100,000 people.

This vastly increases the potential damage of a terrorist attack. No need for nuclear weapons. Just a single drone and a small amount of nerve gas could kill tens of thousands of people on a busy weekend.

Fortunately, there are a few proactive steps you can take to protect yourself from a potentially deadly drone strike …

NBC Drone Protection

If we've learned anything today about Switchblade drones, or drones in general, it's that they're practically undetectable.

With relatively quiet motors and small outlines in the sky, they're almost impossible to spot—at least until it's too late. And since CWAs would almost certainly be dispersed at higher altitudes, that means the most you might hear is a slight "pop" as the drone bursts open at a few thousand feet.

That's why job #1 will be detection.

And when it comes to the detection of chemical warfare agents, there's really nothing better than our DETEHIT CWD-3 Detection Strips. These strips are unique because they mimic the functioning of your body's nervous system with an exposed cholinesterase element. That cholinesterase element reacts to air the exact same way your nervous system would. So if there's a deadly nerve gas in the air, you'll know it immediately as the color changes.

MIRA Safety DETEHIT strips

The other fascinating thing about the DETEHIT strips is how they also measure the concentration of CWA threats. By measuring the amount of time it takes for the DETEHIT strip to react, you can get a rough idea of the concentration of a given threat in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, DETEHIT strips are not equipped to tell you which type of nerve gas you're dealing with. But if the strip reacts, then the environment is deadly—so identifying a specific type of threat is ultimately secondary.

Since we're talking about CWAs and nerve agents that could be deadly even in the tiniest doses, it's essential to prioritize full-body protection. For that, the MIRA Safety MOPP Suit is the ultimate choice.

The MOPP Suit is semi-permeable, unlike most impermeable hazmat suits. That means it "breathes," actively filtering some level of airflow to prevent a greenhouse effect that would leave you feeling exhausted in warmer environments. As a result, you'll be able to move further and do more than you would while wearing a traditional impermeable hazmat suit.

A man in camouflage suit with mask

If you're new to the world of personal protective equipment (PPE), that can be an easy benefit to overlook. Many people focus on getting the bare minimum to survive an emergency without realizing that most emergencies involve frantic overexertion. The types of situations where it's better to have and not need, rather than need and not have. And the MOPP suit is the perfect example of something you'd rather have and not need.

For even more protection, it is prudent to check out the M-4 CBRN Poncho. This is an excellent alternative since it's lightweight, folds up into a tiny package, and provides an additional layer of protection from fallout, nerve agents or other threats.

Finally, if you're in need of a full-face respirator, look no further than the tried-and-true CM-7M gas mask. Available in three different sizes to guarantee a perfect fit for anyone, the CM-7M features a unique eyepiece configuration that functions perfectly with rifle optics and night vision gear while sacrificing little in the way of peripheral vision.

A suited up man in a mask, with another suited up man attending to an injured person in the background

Note that the CM-7M is compatible with all MIRA Safety accessories, including the performance-enhancing MB-90 PAPR, custom corrective MIRAVISION spectacles, and the easy-to-use gas mask microphone. With users worldwide, from the US Department of Defense to the South African Ministry of Interior, the CM-7M is a phenomenal professional-grade gas mask that works perfectly with your MIRA Safety MOPP Suit.

(And if you need a gas mask filter, as always the best all-around choice will be the NBC-77 SOF, thanks in part to its twenty-year shelf life)

The Future of Drone Warfare

Based on the Switchblade drone's success and the Predator and Reaper before it, you can expect drone development to continue at full throttle.

Indeed, researchers are already exploring the potential of artificial intelligence to enhance autonomous decision-making, allowing drones to navigate complex environments and adapt to changing circumstances.

And as regulations catch up with technology, we may witness an era where unmanned drones become an integral part of our daily lives, serving as personal assistants, delivering goods, and revolutionizing transportation. (Imagine getting a speeding ticket from an automated drone!)

Meanwhile, advancements in miniaturization, artificial intelligence, and swarming capabilities hold the potential to reshape the battlefield. Multiple drones operating in coordinated swarms could overwhelm defenses, disrupt communication networks, and provide unprecedented situational awareness.

And with their blend of reconnaissance capabilities and offensive potential, the Switchblade drone has provided a significant tactical advantage to ground forces.

Beyond military applications, drones have found their way into numerous civilian fields. Recently, hobbyist drones have surged in popularity, allowing photographers, filmmakers, and enthusiasts to capture breathtaking aerial footage.

Companies like Amazon and Google have even explored using drones for package delivery, revolutionizing the logistics industry.

Perhaps most importantly, drones have proven instrumental in disaster response and humanitarian efforts. Equipped with thermal cameras and other sensors, they can survey disaster zones, assess damage, and deliver aid to remote areas. From firefighting to search and rescue missions, these unmanned heroes are saving lives and augmenting the capabilities of emergency response teams.

Frequently asked questions

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