Loitering Munitions in Ukraine and Beyond

Are loitering munitions going to define the future of warfare? Observers are watching the war in Ukraine to find out.

In March, when the White House announced that its military support package to Ukraine included “100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems,” it was just one of many bullet points on a generic list, overshadowed by the nearly 10,000 well-known anti-armor systems. However, as soon as it became known that these systems were the Switchblade loitering munition, social media was abuzz with the effect that this “kamikaze drone” would have on the Ukraine conflict. Loitering munitions remain a poorly understood capability, having gained notoriety in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. In turn, pundits raise morality questions concerning the implications of deploying autonomous killing machines, categorize them as just another type of armed drone, or disregard the variations and complexity of specific models. Combined, these generalizations create dangerous and confusing connotations to loitering munitions — mystifying their purpose and hindering the study of their warfare impact.

 

 

While Ukraine will undoubtedly find tactical successes with U.S.-made loitering munitions, the viral videos and supporting information campaign that is likely to follow will obscure and inflate the weapon’s role on the battlefield. To effectively learn from the employment of this emerging technology and understand its impact on the Ukraine conflict, it is essential first to create a shared understanding of what loitering munitions are (and are not) and subsequently examine the varying types that the belligerents can employ — as the Switchblade is not the only variant in question. In doing so, it becomes clear that while the addition of U.S.-made loitering munitions provides Ukraine with another tactical tool for destroying critical Russian military equipment, it will not “turn the tide” of the war, and analysts should not conflate its impact with Azerbaijan’s successful use of loitering munitions. Instead, the West should draw lessons from their employment in Ukraine.

Loitering Munitions Explained

Loitering munitions are in a category of their own. It is misleading to simply bin them with drones. They are more akin to a smart missile than an aircraft. In fact, U.S. manufacturer AeroVironment calls its Switchblade systems “loitering missiles.” Like a missile, these systems are consumable. Loitering munitions are one-time-use weapons designed to find a target and crash into it, giving it its “kamikaze” nickname. Once airborne, loitering munitions can hunt for a target by a human-driven process from a control station, autonomous flight with authority to strike designated targets, or a combination of these methods. Although there are options for recovering some models that do not engage a target, the munition is generally assumed expended once launched. This is essential to understanding their potential role in the Ukraine conflict, as the loitering munitions the United States is providing are likely to be expended quickly.

Soldiers are not reliant on airfields or large open areas to employ these weapons. Thus, like the handheld Javelin anti-armor systems having great success in Ukraine, the man-portable nature of most loitering munitions allows small units to discreetly deploy the weapon across the battlefield. The munition’s launch style varies by type, including a mounted or ground-based catapult system, a modified mortar tube, and a vertical multi-rotor lift. Once airborne, the system is designed to “loiter,” thus the name, for an extended time. The loiter time varies between models. Those being used in Ukraine can stay airborne from 30 to 60 minutes, while some Israeli systems can loiter for nine hours.

Loitering Munitions on International Display

While the technology is not entirely new, loitering munitions failed to garner much attention in the West until recently. Some observers recognized their potential, but they still didn’t feature in the military modernization efforts of many countries. In 2017, one analyst argued in these virtual pages that advancements in loitering munition technology “will impact the character of warfare more substantially than the introduction of the machine gun.” Challenging that the emerging capability was “a revolution hiding in plain sight.” While loitering munitions have been used successfully in conflict regions like Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, it was not until the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that they  gained notoriety.

In 2020, Azerbaijan overwhelmed the Armenian military with the Israeli-made Harop loitering munition, destroying air defense systems and armored vehicles in a conventional mechanized conflict. The Harop provided a persistent air threat to Armenian forces with its nine-hour loiter time and anti-armor capability. Since the war, numerous nations have sought to increase and modernize their internal loitering munition arsenal. While none of the models likely to be used in Ukraine are comparable to the Harop, the ongoing conflict serves as a testbed for this emerging capability and will illuminate potential changes to the changing character of 21st-century warfare.

What the United States Is Sending

Building on the first 100 systems announced in March, the Defense Department confirmed on April 14 that the United States was committed to providing over 700 Switchblades in total. However, the Switchblade has two distinct mortar-launched variants with different capabilities. The smaller 300 model weighs 5.5 pounds and is the cheaper of the options, estimated at roughly $6,000 per munition. It takes less than two minutes to set up and launch, has a range of only 10 kilometers and 15 minutes of flight time, and it cannot penetrate armor. The heavier, but still man-portable 600 model weighs 50 pounds and takes approximately 10 minutes to set up and fire. It has a 40-kilometer range and a loiter time of over 40 minutes. And it can kill tanks.

The battlefield effects will differ based on which model the United States sends. The first 100 systems were eventually identified as 300s. How many in the additional aid packages will be the heavier 600 model remains unclear. However, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that the subsequent batches included some of the anti-armor model. Regardless, Russian forces cannot know which models are deployed where and, as one analyst noted, they “will have to assume that any Ukrainian infantry may have this capability.”

In addition to the Switchblade, on April 21, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed a third military aid package that includes over 121 Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions — a system that the U.S. Air Force rapidly developed for Ukraine. Little is known about this new weapon, with the manufacturer Aevex Aerospace refusing to comment on it or even advertise it. A Defense Department official noted, however, that “It provides the same sort of tactical capability that a Switchblade does.” This emerging capability will not remain a secret for long, as Ukraine provides a public testbed.

While 800 systems seem like a lot, Ukraine could expend this supply in a matter of days. Moving forward, if Ukraine can find success with this emerging technology, it can request more from the United States or similar capabilities from supportive European nations. Beyond foreign military aid, Ukraine may soon also be able to start fielding its own nationally produced loitering munitions.

Ukrainian Organic Loitering Munitions

Ukraine has two companies developing loitering munitions that have been publicly displaying their progress since 2019. The first, the catapult-launched RAM II, is comparable in capabilities to the Switchblade 600. It features an anti-armor and thermobaric warhead option, 40-minutes of flight time, and a range of 30 kilometers. An operator can set up the catapult and launch the munition in under 10 minutes. Although it is unclear how many prototypes the Ukrainian company has developed, in 2018 it successfully tested the RAM II against a stationary tank. The second type, the ST-35 Silent Thunder, is unique with its multi-rotor vertical launch and horizontal flight. It features anti-armor and thermobaric warhead options, with 60-minutes of flight time, and a 30-kilometer maximum range. It is also unclear how many prototypes the manufacturer Athlon Avia has produced for Ukraine’s defense forces.

There is no better testing ground than the battlefield for these Ukrainian companies. It would not be surprising if prototype models of the RAM II and ST-35 Silent Thunder were ordered into rapid production and soon made their presence known. However, Russia has such systems too and has already employed at least one in Ukraine.

Russian Loitering Munitions

Loitering munitions are not new to Russian operations. Russia’s military has two systems comparable to anything that Ukraine may build or acquire. The first system, the Lancet, was successfully employed in Syria in 2021 by Russian special operations forces. With a loiter time of 30 to 40 minutes and a range of approximately 40 kilometers, Russia can employ these systems to support maneuver and siege operations, similar to its use of artillery. Notably, the Russian manufacturer Zala-Aero Group designed the Lancet to autonomously locate and strike targets in designated areas, raising morality issues with the human-out-of-the-loop approach. This is the only system in this conflict that relies on autonomous hunting and killing, a morally gray area for many in the defense industry. We do not know if this system has been used in Ukraine.

Russia’s other loitering munition type, the KYB, is confirmed to have been used in Ukraine. However, Russia did not advertise its employment. Instead, a downed KYB in Ukraine failed to explode, allowing the world to see a picture of the munition broken on the street. The KYB is not autonomous. Instead, the Zala-Aero Group designed this model for fixed site targets. However, the biggest challenge of both systems appears to be payload. While not officially disclosed, the minimal payload size and its current application put into question both systems’ destructive capacity, particularly against armored vehicles. This may be why Russia has not featured the systems in the conflict, or if they have been, why analysts find it difficult to identify their use. In this context, Russia may have created its loitering munitions to counter insurgencies rather than to fight the large, mechanized fight it is currently fighting.

The Changing Character of War

While inherently limited in scope, Ukraine’s operations in the next phase of the war will provide the next data point for assessing this emerging technology and put loitering munitions to the ultimate test. Although it is unlikely that the U.S.-made systems will dramatically alter the war, its impact may provide enduring lessons. For the analyst, the challenge will be to look beyond the viral video or the day-to-day tactical fight. Building on Noel Williams’ recent analysis, the upcoming use of loitering munitions in Ukraine highlights four concepts that challenge Western warfare assumptions.

First, because of the limited range and capability of U.S.-made systems, the impact of loitering munitions will be on a smaller and more tactical scale than the Israeli systems that dominated the Armenian military in 2020. However, if it proves formidable against Russia’s military, the United States and other NATO member states should weigh the benefits of adding more exquisite systems to their loitering munition arsenals. For the U.S. military, this could supplement current long-range artillery systems that lack or have limited anti-armor munitions.

Second, while limited in quantity, anti-armor capable loitering munitions can replicate Ukraine’s success with the Javelin anti-armor launcher and similar weapons. However, it extends this critical capability well beyond line-of-sight distance and can destroy tanks in defensive positions, vice the ones exposed during maneuver operations. This builds on the growing argument that challenges the modern tank’s perceived invulnerability, questioning their primacy on a modern battlefield.

Third, if a small, dismounted team can replicate the role of artillery, this leaves enemy forces that can operate in more protected or safer areas of the battlefield. These long-range strikes can originate from anywhere and disrupt operations across an entire theater by finding and destroying things like fuel dumps, resupply convoys, and headquarters. This challenges how military planners resource combat units across the battlefield, forcing the U.S. Army to reexamine aspects of its doctrine.

Finally, suppose these simple and relatively inexpensive systems can penetrate the world’s most advanced air-defense systems. In that case, this challenges the notion of the protective anti-access bubble that Russia and China have made foundational to their modernization efforts. While this does not discredit emerging warfare concepts like multi-domain operations, it may simplify the strategic challenge of access. Additionally, it may highlight a new approach to suppressing enemy air defenses, a critical aspect of forcible entry.

Conclusion

The character of war is changing, with loitering munitions at the forefront of modern weaponry. The ongoing Ukraine conflict has provided useful lessons for the West. While once relegated to countering insurgencies or special operations missions, this critical capability is becoming a must-have system like Javelins and man-portable air-defense systems. The use of loitering munitions challenges longstanding warfare assumptions regarding long-range strike capabilities, the survivability of armored vehicles, and operational-level logistics. Additionally, the democratization of loitering munitions both internationally and down to the individual combatant ensures that this emerging technology will only continue to appear on battlefields globally. In turn, military analysts should stand ready to assess the impact of loitering munitions in Ukraine and beyond.

 

 

Brennan Deveraux is a major in the U.S. Army and is currently attending the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is an Army strategist and an Art of War scholar specializing in rocket artillery and missile warfare. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and the Horn of Africa and has two defense-related master’s degrees, focusing his research on military adaptation and emerging technology management. The views expressed here do not represent the positions of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: MEF information group, Cpl. Jenessa Davey

 

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