As part of a massive military aid package announced Wednesday, the Biden administration is providing Ukraine with U.S.-made killer drones — cutting-edge guided missiles that could accurately target Russian troops from miles away — two congressional officials briefed on the matter told NBC News.
The White House referred to the weapons in a fact sheet on the aid package as “100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems.” NBC News reported exclusively Tuesday that this move was under consideration.
There are two variants of the weapon, the Switchblade 300 and the 600, that have been sold to U.S. Special Operations Command by manufacturer AeroVironment, based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The 300 is designed for pinpoint strikes on personnel, and the larger 600 is meant to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles. The Congressional officials did not have clarity on which variant would be provided to Ukraine, or whether both would be.
NBC News reported on an exclusive demonstration of the Switchblade 300 in December. AeroVironment officials said at the time that the government forbade them from demonstrating the 600.
AeroVironment officials did not respond to requests for comment.
“We stand with our allies and sovereign nations in their right to protect their homelands and their very lives when this fundamental right is threatened,” the company said in a statement on its website headlined “AeroVironment stands with the people of Ukraine and all of NATO.”
The Switchblades are essentially robotic smart bombs, equipped with cameras, guidance systems and explosives. They can be programmed to automatically strike targets miles away, and they can be steered around objectives until the time is right to strike. The company says the 600 can fly for 40 minutes and up to 50 miles.
They are single-use weapons, which is why they have been dubbed “kamikaze drones.” But they are orders of magnitude cheaper than the Hellfire missiles fired by U.S. Reaper drones. The 300 can cost as little as $6,000, by some estimates.
Both weapons can be set up in minutes and launched from tubes. They fly much faster than the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that Ukraine has been using to inflict damage on Russia, and presumably they would be able to penetrate the spotty air defenses Russia is maintaining over its forces.
If the Switchblade is used in Ukraine, it would be the most significant use of the weapon in combat to date. The U.S. military used the Switchblade in combat under limited circumstances in Afghanistan and elsewhere but has not publicized that fact, sources familiar with the matter have said.
Many questions remain about the proposed arrangement with Ukraine, including how many of the missiles the U.S. has in its stockpiles, how fast AeroVironment can manufacture new ones and how much training Ukrainians would require to operate the systems.
The United Kingdom is the only foreign country that so far has been authorized to purchase the Switchblade.