Much digital ink has been spilled over the use of kamikaze-style drones like the Switchblade used in Ukraine. Marines have a lot to say about these new weapons of war and their overall impact on the battlefield. “Kamikaze” drones like those used in Ukraine offer troops on the ground major benefits, say U.S. Marine Corps leaders, but the Corps still seeks to defend Marines against these weapons.
The ability of these drones, known as vagabond munitions, to linger on the battlefield gives Marines more flexibility, Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger said at the Modern exhibit. Marine Day in Washington, DC.
Traditional mortars and artillery systems are limited to ballistic trajectories – “it shoots, it drops, everything is predictable, everything on a pre-positioned target,” Berger said.
The advantage of a weapon that can be deployed “down to squad level”, launched by Marines from a mortar tube or other vehicle, and then “loitered around for 40, 45 minutes “before being led to a target or finding the target itself” is huge,” Berger said.
These rounds can be launched before a target’s “precise location” is known, and the loiter time “gives you so much flexibility to engage concealed targets or moving targets,” Berger said.
Floating munitions are an important part of US military aid to Ukraine. As of May 10, the United States had provided nearly 1,000: 700 Switchblade drones and 121 Phoenix Ghost drones.
The United States sent Ukraine the Switchblade 300, a lighter model designed for anti-personnel missions. The US Department of Defense is still working on acquiring the Switchblade 600, a heavier variant designed for armored targets.
Little is known about the Phoenix Ghost, but it is “similar” to the Switchblade, according to Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby, who said in April that it can “be used to give you a visual image from what he sees, sure, but his main focus is attack.
Both drones have started arriving in Ukraine, and the Switchblade already see the action.
Stray munitions were similarly used in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020. Footage showed Azeri forces using foreign-made drones to find and attack armored vehicles, artillery and troops.
Swarms of such drones are “a low-cost, low-risk way” to help Ukraine mount effective attacks against Russian artillery and missile batteries, wrote Benjamin Jensen, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies. and international, in March.
US Marines have been using floating munitions for some time. The Switchblade was used by Marines in Afghanistan a decade ago to attack small targets, such as insurgents placing bombs. More recently, the service has researched loitering munitions that can be launched from vehicles or by individual Marines.
A recent update on the Corps’ Force Design 2030 – which envisions a lighter, more mobile Corps that can deploy small units for dispersed operations – notes that the distribution of roving ammunition “within our small units provides[s] the melee lethality enhancements long envisioned by infantry Marines.
These weapons can have a demoralizing effect on opponents, Berger said.
“From a ground infantry perspective, it’s incredibly frustrating to know there’s ammunition lurking over your head. There is a psychological impact,” Berger said Tuesday. “You don’t know if there is a camera system or a deadly warhead on it, but it has an impact on the adversary.”
But the Corps is still grappling with how to defend its own troops against this threat.
One way to do this is to reduce the “vulnerability of Marines to being detected” through camouflage, concealment or deception, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s future directorate, told Reuters. journalists at the exhibition.
There are “two ways to go” if detected, Watson said: “How do you counter the system directly…or how do you stop the system from hitting you if it actually detects you.”
The Corps is working on “material and non-material solutions” to the drone threat as part of a broader effort to improve its air and missile defenses, said Major General Eric Austin, director of the Development Directorate. body capabilities. during a press conference.
“In some cases, it’s cover and concealment. In other cases, it’s hardware solutions,” like the Integrated Vehicle-Mounted Marine Air Defense System, Austin said.
The Corps and other service branches have placed particular emphasis on countering small unmanned aerial systems, which have been used against US troops before and for which current defenses are not well suited.
“You don’t want to pitch Patriots against small UAS, do you? It’s expensive the wrong way,” Austin said.
The Corps is “pretty good” at detecting drones “for the most part,” Austin told reporters Tuesday, “but the defeat mechanics are difficult because there are kinetic and non-kinetic defeat mechanics.”
“There are definitely new concepts coming out,” Austin added, “but again, it’s really complex when you think about getting the counter-small UAS capability into someone’s sovereign territory. elsewhere or on the continental United States. There are a lot of political implications here.
Christopher Woody edits and reports on defense and security issues for Insider where it first appeared. He is based in Washington, DC.