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Among the recent batch of weapons approved by the US DoD for Ukraine, two systems – Switchblade loitering munitions and the Puma small tactical drone – attract special attention.
The hand-launched RQ-20 Puma drone with a 15-foot (4.5 m) wingspan has a flight endurance of more than five hours and a control range of more than 25 miles (some 40 km). The drones can work together with the loitering munitions as hunter-killer teams, a technique recently demonstrated by the makers but never before used in combat. Both systems are manufactured by AeroVironment.
The Puma-Switchblade combination was demonstrated last October in a NATO maritime exercise off Portugal. The Puma was launched from a US warship and located a target, then passed details to a Switchblade launched from the UK MADFOX unmanned vessel.
The Puma boasts a Mantis i45 sensor, a gimballed sensor that provides a stabilized view of any point on the ground below. It can operate at night thanks to its low-light camera and advanced thermal imager.
According to forbes.com, Ukrainian tactical drones have been highly successful in night operations due to the Russian lack of effective night vision gear.
The Switchblade 300 loitering munition is in fact a tiny drone that weighs less than five pounds (2.3 kg) and has a small explosive warhead. Only very limited numbers are being supplied to Ukraine – 100 in the first batch, and likely a similar number in the second batch. The delivery will also include 10 Switchblade 600 models — the much larger version of the loitering munition.
The Sensor-to-Shooter (S2S) Kit, first introduced last year, allows the Puma (and other drones) to pass data via their proprietary digital data link directly to a Switchblade.
The S2S kit allows the Puma operator to push a button and automatically launch a Switchblade, which homes in on the target’s location.
The Switchable 300 kamikaze drones have been used quietly for years by the US military in targeted killing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, according to sources cited by nbcnews.com.
The Puma-Switchblade team could take on Russian artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems mounted on unarmored trucks. These have been doing massive damage to Ukraine’s cities, and are vulnerable to the Switchblade’s warhead.
Unlike other weapons, the kamikaze drone has no launch signature, giving the Russians no clue where attacks are coming from, and making it ideal for stealthy surprise attacks.