Science and Technology
The war in Ukraine
Loitering with intent
Baguette-sized flying bombs are about to enter service in Ukraine
Javelin anti-tank missiles supplied to Ukraine by America are imposing a heavy toll on Russian forces.
Now, the Americans are sending a batch of 100 somewhat different portable weapons—so-called loitering munitions.
The difference is that, with a Javelin, you have to choose the target before you launch the missile.
With a loitering munition, you don’t.
Rather, you can fly it to a target-rich environment and pick out the richest of the lot to attack.
The Javelin, a modern successor to the Bazooka, weighs 20kg with its launcher and can hit something up to 4km away.
Switchblade, as the loitering munition in question is known, is subtler.
The version most likely to be delivered (though no one will confirm this) weighs but 2.5kg, yet has a range of 10km.
Though it cannot penetrate tank armour, its grenade-sized warhead is effective against unarmoured vehicles and groups of troops.
That, as Nick Reynolds, an analyst at rusi, a British defence think-tank, observes, means they can be used in particular against artillery batteries, whether of guns or rocket launchers—which are “softer” targets than tanks.
This may be increasingly important as Ukraine’s cities are subjected to heavy artillery bombardment.
Like Javelin, Switchblade is launched from a tube.
But rather than being a sleek rocket capable of travelling supersonically, it is a miniature aircraft—a drone—with wings that flip out after launch (hence its name) and an electric propeller which drives it forward at a leisurely 100kph for a flight that can last up to 15 minutes.
It is controlled using a tablet that displays videos from an optical camera and an infrared thermal-imager which are on board the craft.
When the operator spots a target, he or she locks onto it and the drone accelerates towards it at up to 160kph, chasing it automatically if it takes evasive action.
Robert Bunker, director of research and analysis at c/o Futures, a security consultancy in California, says that the precision thus offered allows Switchblade to focus on high-value targets: not just artillery, but the headquarters and command vehicles of artillery units.
The close-up view provided by camera and thermal-imager means that targets can be picked with care.
Moreover, if the operator realises a mistake has been made as the drone closes in, the attack can be called off and the weapon flown back into the sky until another target has been identified.
That gives Switchblade an advantage over a different sort of loiterer, armed drones.