A video supposedly depicting a kamikaze-style attack by a Switchblade drone on a Russian bunker in Ukraine was posted to Ukraine’s 53rd Mechanized Brigade’s Facebook page on Friday.
“Thus, with the support of the tactical strike unmanned aerial vehicle Switchblade, the occupiers were driven to flee, who were so fervently erecting fortifications,” writes brigade commander Col. Dmitry Titenko in a postscript.
For more than a decade, the US military has used the Switchblade loitering munition, commonly known as a kamikaze or suicide drone. It combines the features of a small drone and a guided missile, just as other weapons in its class. It gets its name from its folding wings, which return to their original position after launch.
A Switchblade operator may scout for targets with its integrated camera, just like a standard surveillance drone. However, after a target has been identified, the operator can command the drone to smash into it and detonate its fragmentation warhead.
In March, the US declared that it will deliver Switchblades to Ukraine. They’re also delivering 700 unmanned Aeroenvironment Switchblade systems to Ukraine, of which 100 have already arrived. Each’system’ can have up to ten explosive-laden drones and one command and control unit.
Both types are being delivered to Ukraine: the Switchblade-300 is designed for soft targets near the frontlines, while the Switchblade-600 can carry out deep strikes up to 25 miles distant and knock out armoured vehicles.
The attack seen in the video is almost probably the Switchblade-300, due to the size of the blast and the type of the target.
The 53rd Mechanized Brigade is thought to be defending Velyka Novosilka in northeastern Ukraine against Russian forces to its south. The final Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol are holed up in its Azovstal steel mill, sixty kilometres south of its position. Despite this, the 53rd lacks the strength to break past the 42nd Motor-Rifle Division’s Russian screening regiments.
An alleged Russian fortification—possibly a machine gun nest—connected to a network of defensive trenches is the target of the Switchblade hit. The footage was shot from the perspective of a second drone, which is odd given the Switchblade’s own camera. Because a -300 model’s endurance is only 10 minutes, identifying the target with a longer-range surveillance drone is likely required to fully utilise Switchblade’s maximum range.
The munition bursts immediately in front of the dugout, rather than in the trenches or on the bunker’s top, leading two nearby Russian soldiers to run.
It’s unknown how much damage the strike did, or whether anyone was inside the bunker (four soldiers were visible earlier in the video). The munition’s compact, grenade-like warhead is designed to release deadly shards in a concentrated arc rather than a circular blast radius, so it seems to “miss” the target. In this scenario, the blast appears to be oriented to discharge into the dug-open out’s firing port.
This isn’t exactly a ‘high-value target,’ but it demonstrates how the Switchblade 300 may be employed as a precision 60-millimeter mortar to find and destroy strong points that could obstruct attacking infantry and cause casualties.
The Switchblade-300’s compact, directionally targeted blast, as well as its ability to terminate an attack even seconds before detonation, make it ideal for reducing the possibility of civilian collateral damage. It also explains why the fuselage of the kamikaze drone survived the explosion of its munition.
We have no idea how long the Switchblades had been in use before this video was released. Russian military, on the other hand, have released photographs of what seems to be a Switchblade-300 that landed near Kharkiv, allegedly with its forward warhead-bearing part fired. This is considerably north of the 53rd Brigade’s operational region, meaning that Switchblades are being widely distributed.
Russia has been employing its own Zala KUB-BLA loitering munitions in the fight, which appear to have a high ‘dud rate’ based on the relatively intact quantities recovered. Prior to the conflict, Ukraine developed loitering munitions, but it’s unclear if they’re still in use. Tactical-level reconnaissance/strike systems like the Switchblade-300 make infantry units more effective by providing them with portable precision-strike capabilities they can use without exposing troops to direct fire or having to call higher headquarters for air and artillery support.
The larger Switchblade-600, on the other hand, has more promise as a game-changer because of its ability to destroy material targets such as air defence and artillery vehicles, communications/electronic warfare systems, tanks, and fuel and ammo stores far behind the frontlines.