The US military plans to equip its ground forces with the Switchblade 600 loitering munition from defence technology manufacturer AeroVironment.

Senior Pentagon officials announced that intent on 6 May, noting the acquisition will come under the so-called Replicator initiative to rapidly field thousands of uncrewed, expendable systems.

Washington says it has allocated some $500 million for the first tranche of procurement under Replicator – of which the Switchblade 600 is the first lethal system to be confirmed.

Deputy secretary of defence Kathleen Hicks on 6 April said the milestone represents an “important step in strengthening our defence and technology industrial base”.

AeroVironment Switchblade - 970

Source: AeroVironment

Hundreds of AeroVironment loitering munitions, including the Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600, have seen frontline combat service with the Ukrainian army in recent years

Loitering munitions are a class of small uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) typically equipped with a sensor package and explosive warhead. Once launched, they can be tasked by ground troops to patrol a designated area for enemy forces, which the loitering munition can then engage as directed.

AeroVironment’s Switchblades saw combat service with US Army special operators in Afghanistan and more recently with the Ukrainian army. Smaller Switchblade 300s were among the earliest military assistance packages sent to Ukraine by Washington in 2022.

A least 100 of the more-capable Switchblade 600s were later provided.

At the 2023 Special Operations Forces Week conference in Tampa, Florida, AeroVironment executives told FlightGlobal that systems like Switchblade are unique in their ability to engage human-sized targets with precision and at ranges of “tens of kilometres” – while being lightweight enough to be carried by a single soldier.

Aerovironment Switchblade

Source: AeroVironment

Tube-launched Switchblade loitering munitions can be carried by small groups of ground forces and deployed to provide surveillance or to strike enemy targets

The Pentagon says Switchblade 600s have “demonstrated their utility in Ukraine”, adding that the system will provide additional capability to the USA’s own forces.

AeroVironment in April said “thousands” of its unmanned systems are currently employed in Ukraine, “successfully operating in the most-demanding electronic warfare conditions, and effectively completing their missions”.

“We have been gratified by overwhelming user feedback and demand for additional systems,” the company added.

While Switchblades are currently seeing active service in Europe, Washington has another area in mind.

Senior US officials are betting that large numbers of autonomous combat systems can offset what the Pentagon describes as an imbalance in the Indo-Pacific region between China and the USA.

“Replicator is meant to help us overcome [China’s] biggest advantage, which is mass,” Hicks says. “More ships, more missiles, more people.”

The announcement of the first tranche of Replicator awards was praised by Washington’s top officer in the Pacific – Admiral Samuel Paparo – who was installed as the head of US Indo-Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii on 3 May.

“This is a critical step in delivering the capabilities we need, at the scale and speed we need, to continue securing a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Paparo said.

The Pentagon hopes to begin deploying “multiple thousands” of such systems within the next 24 months.