On Wednesday we looked at why the Pentagon recently launched a program called Replicator, which aims to develop and manufacture in only two years large numbers of drones that will be “small, smart, cheap and many.” The drones will primarily be aimed at countering China’s growing arsenal of military hardware if the Taiwan issue sparks a war with Beijing.
The news comes after the U.S. Army announced it will develop a new kamikaze drone after failing to renew orders for the Switchblade 300, an attack drone that first saw combat in Afghanistan in 2012. Last year, hundreds of these small “loitering munitions” were given to Ukraine for use against Russian forces. The fact that the Pentagon decided to replace the Switchblade with a new type of drone illustrates the challenges the Replicator program will face.
Measuring only 61 centimeters in length and weighing only 2,7 kilogram with its launch tube and carrying case, the Switchblade 300 is very small and portable for an attack drone. Its name mimics the way its spring-loaded wings are folded up and fold out once it is shot out of its tube with compressed gas. The drone can fly for 10 kilometers and loiter over a target for roughly 15 minutes. It was used with some success by forward-operating U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where it was used as a “flying shotgun” and “long-range sniper bullet” to attack fleeting high-value targets like Taliban commanders.
The drone’s light weight means that its warhead is only the size of a 40 millimeter grenade that is typically fired by automatic grenade launchers. This, combined with its ability to strike targets with high accuracy from out of nowhere, makes it effective at attacking small groups of insurgents in the open or in vehicles. However, while the drone has the ability to penetrate very light armor, it is not very effective against armored vehicles in general.
That’s probably one of the reasons why the U.S. Army has stopped ordering the Switchblade 300 and started work on its Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance (LASSO) program, which aims to develop a lightweight attack drone that will also be launched out of a tube and which can be used “to track and engage non-line-of-sight targets and armored vehicles with precision lethal fires.” LASSO is considered to be an anti-tank weapon and has been deemed an “urgent capability acquisition,” a Department of Defense procedure designed to deliver new systems to the field in less than two years — which coincidentally is the same timeframe that project Replicator is working on.
Apart from its small warhead, another issue with the Switchblade 300 is its price. In the Pentagon’s 2023 budget its price is stated as $53,000 per unit, but when all development costs are taken into account the true cost is closer to $80,000 for each 2.7-kilogram drone. This is cheap compared to a Javelin anti-tank missile, which sells for $184,000 per missile in the current budget, but very expensive compared to commercial FPV (First Person View) quadcopter drones that are currently being turned into armor-busting kamikaze drones in the basements of Ukraine. These home-made killers cost around $700 or less to produce — with one Russian source estimating that the parts cost little more than $200.
The company that produces the Switchblade 300 also produces the 15-kilogram Switchblade 600, which can fly for more than 40 minutes. This much larger version has a larger warhead capable of attacking armor, but its price is unknown and analysts speculate that it would be significantly more expensive than the 300 model.
Apart from the Switchblade 300’s eye-watering price and lack of anti-tank capabilities, the Ukraine war has also shown that drones that work well against insurgents might not do so well against modern militaries that operate electronic-warfare systems. This is a very important issue for the Replicator project, as researchers with the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported in May that Ukraine’s military is losing around 10,000 drones every month, and most of these are lost to Russian electronic-warfare systems.
The RUSI report stated that along the approximate 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) of the conflict’s front line, Russia maintained a major electronic-warfare system roughly every 10 kilometers (6 miles). These were set back about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the front and focused mainly on neutralizing drones. The report added that the Russians use sophisticated systems like the Shipovnik-Aero jamming station, which are hard to detect and can imitate other signals. This jamming station “also has a sophisticated range of effects for downing UAVs, including interfering with navigational systems,” the report said.
Thus, the fate of the Switchblade 300 indicates that drones that work well against insurgents with no electronic-warfare capabilities can hardly be expected to function against a modern military armed with sophisticated detection, interference and interception systems. The thousands of “small, smart, cheap and many” drones that Replicator will have to develop and manufacture in the next two years will have to be capable of operating inside zones filled with electronic-warfare signals and radiation. Once that feat has been achieved, the attack versions of these drones will also require warheads large enough and smart enough to penetrate the armor of the systems they are supposed to target.
Then there is the issue of range. Current small kamikaze drone models like the Switchblade variants and Russia’s Lancet-3 use small propeller engines powered by batteries that have to be small enough to fit into small tubes. This limits the range of these drones to less than 50 kilometers, while large kamikaze drones that use petrol engines — like Iran’s less sophisticated Shahed-136 one-way-attack drone — have an estimated range of 1,000 to 2,500 kilometers.
Range will be a serious challenge for the designers of Replicator drones, as China’s massive military buildup has created a large anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble that stretches hundreds of kilometers from its coastline and well beyond Taiwan. This A2/AD bubble means that large above-surface U.S. platforms like warships and warplanes can not safely approach the Taiwan Strait during a potential conflict. To solve this problem, Replicator drones will not only have to be “small, smart, cheap and many” but will either be able to fly or swim far, or will have to be delivered to the combat zone by submarine systems.