WASHINGTON — AeroVironment, the maker of the Switchblade loitering munition Ukraine has used against Russia in recent months, is planning to ramp up production of the heavier-duty version.
Ukraine has had repeated battlefield successes with the Switchblade 300 since the United States shipped it 400 of the lighter-weight loitering munition earlier this year, Charlie Dean, AeroVironment’s vice president of sales and business development, said in an interview with Defense News at the Association of the U.S. Army’s conference on Monday.
And with the larger, more powerful Switchblade 600 on its way to Ukraine — Dean said the first batch of 10 would likely be in the country in the next few weeks — and growing visibility and interest in the weapon, AeroVironment is making preparations to produce more.
Dean said Ukraine has “considerable interest” in getting and using the Switchblade 600. Today, AeroVironment can produce more than 2,000 Switchblade 600 systems annually; within a few months, he said, the company hopes to roughly triple that to about 6,000.
To do that, he added, the company is working to obtain more supplies to build the 600 version as well as adding new lines dedicated to the heavier-duty loitering munition.
Right now, he explained, AeroVironment only has one shift building the 600 systems, but could add a second shift if necessary.
Switchblade loitering munitions are essentially a combination of a reconnaissance drone and guided missile.
The smaller Switchblade 300 is small enough that a soldier can carry several in a backpack, set up its launching tube within a few minutes, and fire it off, with its folded wings snapping out like its namesake knife.
The soldier would then fly the 5.5-pound Switchblade 300 up to 10 kilometers, or about 6 miles, sweeping the area with the munition’s camera and looking for a target.
Once the target is spotted, Dean said, the Switchblade can loiter while the operator figures out the best spot to strike. Switchblade operators can even fine-tune the angle of attack to cause the most amount of damage, he added.
So far, he said, Switchblade 300s have been used to take out “soft-skin” Russian targets — fuel trucks, personnel carriers, machine gun nests, trench positions and dismounted infantry.
But when the Switchblade 600 hits the battlefield, Dean said, it could prove to be an even more devastating weapon — a “tank-killer” with a warhead as powerful as the Javelin, but controllable and able to travel a much greater range.
The Pentagon last month awarded AeroVironment a $2.2 million contract for 10 Switchblade 600s earmarked for Ukraine, and more are expected to follow. Switchblade 600s weigh 120 pounds and can fly up to 90 kilometers, Dean said.
And because Switchblades are precision weapons, Dean said, it’s more likely Ukraine would only need one shot to hit its intended target instead of several rounds, as an artillery fight might require.
The increased visibility from the Ukraine war — videos of the weapons in action regularly pop up on social media and have been publicized by Ukraine’s government — has driven more interest from other countries. France in June announced its plan to quickly buy Switchblades to plug a capability gap in its Army. Dean said other nations have expressed interest as well, though he declined to identify them.
Before the war started, as Russian threats against Ukraine increased, Dean said, AeroVironment set up a team within its company to consider ways to help Ukraine.
It was a personal mission for the firm’s chief executive, Wahid Nawabi, said Dean. Nawabi grew up in Afghanistan and fled with family members after the Soviet Union invaded, Dean added.
“We are very focused on helping Ukraine achieve victory,” Dean said.
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.