The war in Ukraine shows that the face of battle is changing in favor of small, less costly, and easily portable weapons that negate many of the advantages formerly held by large, complex, and expensive systems. The man-portable Javelin anti-tank missile is a good example.
AeroVironment’s Switchblade is another. The miniature drone has gained a significant media following over recent weeks after becoming part of the latest US military assistance package to Ukraine. While there have been no reports of the Switchblade’s use yet, the nature of the fighting in Ukraine suggests the vital role that Loitering Munitions (LM) like the Switchblade will play in future conflicts.
Key to Ukraine’s defense has been its ability to maintain the resilience and lethality of small, highly mobile units in a battlefield that ostensibly should have been dominated by armor, air forces, and long-range munitions. The Ukrainians have achieved significant results from moving around the sides of poorly supported, road-bound Russian columns to take down costly systems, such as the T-90, with cheap, shoulder-fired munitions. Ukraine has also defied predictions in maintaining the integrity of its air defenses after six weeks of war by constantly moving, and selectively using, both its man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and mobile, long-range systems thus denying Russian stand-off munitions easy targets. In the skies, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) like the Turkish-produced Bayraktar TB2 have proved themselves in working effectively to provide vital support and long-range lethality to Ukrainian troops that would be impossible with traditional weapon systems.
LMs can provide the same advantages as UCAVs and more. Unlike their larger, costlier brethren, many of these drones are small enough to be carried and launched by an individual. Once launched, they circle over a designated area, search for a target, and, once found, dive on the chosen target and detonate its internal warhead. All is done without a human controller. In practice, they are both the pilot and the missile. This ability to wait for an opportunity makes it particularly valuable against hardened targets for which precise information is initially lacking and that are vulnerable only for a short period of time or from angles that require a high degree of immediate maneuverability.
The US can use the potential of LMs both for its own advantage and to protect its soldiers from what will truly be a novel threat. But there is much work to be done. Despite the attention that Switchblades have received, the US has fallen behind other countries in its development and integration. The failure of the Russian military to achieve its original objectives must not lead observers into an unwarranted complacency.
While Russia vastly underestimated the force needed to achieve its operational and political objectives in Ukraine, this miscalculation fits into the historical standard for established powers that face what is perceived to be an inferior foe—especially one against which it has recent success. Other actors far more willing to engage the US, however, will certainly have no delusions about their ability to quickly impose their will on the US and its allies. They will seek to achieve cost-effective exchange by utilizing limited resources to obtain weapon systems that can exploit vulnerabilities in US forces. Shock and awe is, after all, the luxury of the superior power.