WASHINGTON — For years, the war on terror dominated displays at the massive Association of the U.S. Army trade show with heavily armored vehicles and ways to protect soldiers from makeshift explosives. But this week, Ukraine’s fight to repel Russia’s invasion highlights new stars of the battlefield, such as small drones or in-demand artillery.
Those weapons aren’t just symbols of Western support and Ukraine’s resistance. They’re also big business for defense firms who have their sights set on the multibillion-dollar plans at a time when capitals around the world want to bolster their arsenals following the invasion. About 23,000 attendees of the annual conference, some from foreign military procurement agencies, came to the show floor to network and check out the products on display.
At AeroVironment’s booth, one noteworthy weapon was the Switchblade 300, the 6-pound, tube-launched kamikaze drone that the Ukrainian army for months has used to strike Russian targets. Since the U.S. placed Switchblades in Ukrainian hands this spring, its soldiers have used it to batter Russian troops and equipment. That includes fuel trucks, personnel carriers, machine gun nests, trench positions and dismounted infantry.
A few feet away sat its bigger brother: the Switchblade 600, boasting a longer range, greater loitering time and a larger warhead capable of taking out armored targets. When the heavier-duty loitering munition reaches Ukraine in the coming weeks, the two weapons could give the embattled nation another boost — and even more firepower to drive invading Russian troops from their territory.
“They’re hitting Ukraine very, very soon,” said Charlie Dean, AeroVironment’s vice president of sales and business development. When Switchblade 600s arrive in significant quantities in Ukraine, “this battlefield is going to change significantly. It’s going to turn quickly.”
AeroVironment’s hand-launched RQ-20 Puma, a drone used by the U.S. Army that Dean said Ukraine is also using to conduct reconnaissance before artillery strikes, was also on display.
As the war enters a new phase, the American company is preparing to ship its Telemax robots to Ukraine, which can conduct bomb disposal missions or perform other jobs too dangerous for humans.
The U.S. and its Western allies are sending billions of dollars’ worth of equipment that Ukrainians can easily use, and they are training Ukrainian forces on the more sophisticated technologies. Former Warsaw Pact countries have shipped off aging Russian-made materiel from their arsenals, which has put them in the market for modern replacements.
Because the M777 howitzer’s performance on Ukraine’s battlefields is spurring interest from overseas, talks to restart production are ongoing between its manufacturer BAE Systems and the U.S. Army, the Wall Street Journal reported. That wasn’t one of the armaments BAE had on display at AUSA, but it did show off the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, a slim, four-barreled launcher for laser-guided rockets that the U.S. used in Afghanistan and is now sending to Kyiv.
“Based on what we’re hearing, it’s very effective over there, doing better than we thought it might in some ways,” said BAE’s Jim Miller, vice president of business development for combat mission systems.
L3Harris Technologies mounted the launcher on a pickup truck and dubbed it Vampire, which, Miller said, sparked attention and inquiries about what other vehicles could host it.
The proliferation of drones on the battlefield is putting a sharper focus on efforts by the U.S. Army and firms like BAE, which makes armored vehicles, to add protection from top-attack threats. BAE’s engineers are working on technologies to spot, track and recognize drones as well as “new armor solutions,” according to Miller
“There is an increasing threat of unmanned aerial systems — everything on the battlefield can be seen and attacked,” he said.
Ukraine’s military claimed last month for the first time that it encountered an Iranian-supplied suicide drone used by Russia on the battlefield. The Ukrainian military’s published images of the wreckage of the drone. The vehicle resembled a triangle, or delta-shaped, drone flown by Iran known as the Shahed-136.
Tucked in a corner far from the main show floor, a small Utah-based company, Fortem Technologies, displayed a quadcopter that uses a low-power, phased array to spot drones and a net gun to bag them. Chief Technology Officer Adam Robertson said that, working with the U.S. government, it gave Ukraine two free sets and is in talks with Pentagon and Ukrainian officials to send more.
“We actually capture the drone — there’s a long tether — and tow it away,” Robertson said.
Fortem developed the technology with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army. When asked by the military weeks after the invasion, the company quickly created a version for Ukraine that comes in a backpack with training materials in the Ukrainian language. Robertson said the company can build 28 per month.
“Our heartstrings were pulled so we sent the first systems in for free,” Robertson said. “Because of the fog of war, we don’t know exactly what’s happening [with those systems], but we do know they want more, so we’re trying to get them more.”
To be sure, some of the manufacturers of weapons sent to Ukraine are not advertising. Skip Arny, a vice president at Aevex Aerospace, a company based in Solana Beach, California, that makes the Phoenix Ghost, was at the show. But that secretive loitering munition was not.
On the sidelines of the show, Arny said he was here to market other services the firm offers, such as customizing small aircraft. He declined to discuss the Phoenix Ghost in detail so as not to compromise its effectiveness on the battlefield.
“It’s a great example of a quick-reaction capability, and we basically got a request to put a system together, and that’s what it is,” he said. “It’s a system of systems that varies in range and payload and type, and it was directly though the Department of Defense.”
The Pentagon is taking lessons from Ukraine that it’s pouring into the development of future weapons systems. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, who oversees efforts to develop and field future ground combat platforms, said the vehicles must have “hemispheric protection” from above. At the same time, Ukraine has shown troops shouldn’t be burdened with bells and whistles on their equipment.
“The systems we develop need to be reliable and durable and simple enough that soldiers who are tired and scared and in contact with the enemy can continue to operate them reliably,” Norman said. “ ‘Tough beats fancy’ is something that comes to mind as a bumper sticker in that space.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.