Photos of unexploded Kyb loitering munitions captured near Kyiv emerged online recently. Ukraine might get U.S. Switchblade suicide drones soon.
As we are nearing the end of the third week since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the first reports about the use of loitering munitions in this conflict have started to emerge. So far, Russia appeared to avoid using unmanned assets, contrary to Ukraine which used every type of drones available, including the Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) consumer drones from DJI and similar brands.
Only recently, the Russian Ministry of Defence began posting online footage from its unmanned aerial vehicles, as photos on social medias showed the first Russian drones captured or shot down by Ukrainian forces. Among those, photos confirming the use of Russian loitering munitions emerged between Saturday and Monday, showing Zala Kyb loitering munitions which were either shot down or malfunctioned without detonating near Kyiv.
As we reported recently, modern conflicts are continuously evolving, and so are the technologies employed on the battlefield. One of the advanced technologies that is being increasingly seen in action during the most recent conflicts is indeed the loitering munition. Loitering munitions, which are often defined as suicide drones, are precision weapons, usually with Man In The Loop (MITL) guidance, which can loiter for a certain time over a defined area while looking for a target to attack.
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 14, 2022
According to many experts, loitering munitions can fit in the niche between cruise missiles and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles with some important differences from both, as these systems are designed to loiter for relatively long time compared to a cruise missile and the entire asset is expended in the attack compared to a UCAV (hence the term “suicide drone”).
Loitering munitions brought us from a one missile to one target ratio to a many to many ratio. In fact, while classic missiles are launched to one precise target whose position is already known, loitering munitions can be launched even if the target location is unknown: they just need a “killbox” where they might find multiple targets and choose one suitable for the attack. This makes them ideal for time sensitive pop-up targets that needs to be attacked immediately and can’t wait for a missile to be launched on preplanned coordinates.
Usually, Russian UAVs appear to be used mostly for spotting and providing bomb damage assessment for artillery strikes, without offensive capabilities. On the other hand, the Kyb appears to be used for engaging fixed soft targets or targets of opportunity, even if it could also perform a scout role with the use of optical sensors.
The drone didn’t explode, however it is unknown if it malfunctioned or it was downed using Ukrainian electronic warfare systems. pic.twitter.com/Ju38t0Qhrp
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 12, 2022
Reportedly, the Kyb and its upgraded variant have already been used in Syria, with the upgraded variant passing state tests in November 2021 and beginning deliveries earlier this year. According to the producer Zala, the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) division of the Kalashnikov group, the Kyb delivers a special payload to defeat remote ground targets based on target coordinates, which are set manually or based on an image from a target guidance payload.
“The high-precision drone comes within 30 minutes at a speed of 130 km/h. The shell is delivered to the target by the complex regardless of terrain or whether the target is concealed or not, both at low and high attitudes. It is an extremely accurate and efficient weapon being very hard to combat by traditional air defense systems,” said Rostec’s CEO Sergey Chemezov at IDEX 2019, when the Kyb was first unveiled.
The company further stretched the capabilities saying that Kyb can also be used as part of a swarm of drones. The payload is reported to be up to 3 kg, with the offensive variant being a fragmentation warhead, as seen in the photos of unexploded Kybs in Ukraine. The company said that Kyb can loiter over an area to detect a target and then attack it from the upper hemisphere, diving vertically and allowing attacks against tanks, as in this way it would pierce the turret that has minimal armor protection in the upper part. However, this latter capability seems unlikely with a fragmentation warhead, unless the munition can use also armor piercing or penetrator warheads.
Another loitering munition of the Kalashnikov Group is also in service with the Russian military, the Zala Lancet, however we don’t have reports so far about its employment in Ukraine. The Lancet relies on its own reconnaissance, navigation, and communication modules to employ a 3 kg payload for a precision attack within a 40 km radius, while also transmitting real time video feed from its sensors.
The Lancet loitering munition was first unveiled during the Army 2019 international military and technical forum, with Chemezov noting that the weapon system has already been tested and is capable of striking targets in the air, on land, and water. Like Kyb, Lancet was reportedly put to use also in Syria in a number of occasions.
The Switchblade is small enough to be carried in a backpack and can be launched from a variety of ground, maritime, and air platforms.
— 𝔗𝔥𝔢 𝔇𝔢𝔞𝔡 𝔇𝔦𝔰𝔱𝔯𝔦𝔠𝔱 (@TheDeadDistrict) March 16, 2022
Ukraine might soon begin using loitering munitions too. It has been reported, in fact, that the United States will provide Ukraine with “100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems”. The Congress approved a new aid package, which reportedly includes the AeroVironment Switchblade loitering munition, but there it was not specified which variant will be supplied to Ukraine.
This system has been acquired in two variants, the Switchblade 300 and the 600, by the U.S. Special Operations Command, with the smaller 300 being designed for pinpoint strikes on personnel, while the larger 600 is meant to destroy primarily tanks and other armored vehicles, but also lighter targets.
The Switchblade 300 has a range of 10 km and an endurance of just 15 minutes, but it has the advantage of being easily transported by a soldier in a backpack, weighting just 2.5 kg. On the other hand, the Switchblade 600 is much larger, weighting more than 22 kg, but it also offers improved performance with a range of more than 90 km and an endurance of more than 40 minutes.