Army buys 300 killer drones to loiter with lethal intent

Australia will import so-called “loitering munitions”, otherwise called kamikaze or killer drones, from US defence manufacturer AeroVironment, despite having exported 300 similar but locally-made systems to Ukraine in 2022.

The Australian Defence Force finally came good on its pledge to acquire the controversial technology on Monday, revealing it will buy the highly portable Switchblade 300 that launches like a mortar from a tube and can stay airborne for around 20 minutes.

The capability has long been on the shopping list of the army because allows troops to almost instantly fire off a precision aerial payload without calling in air support from outside the immediate area, which can take time to arrive.

The munitions are not big, weighing in at around 1.7kg, but they are lethal because they can chase down targets either manually or autonomously, though a human has to select the target. The systems are also essentially disposable (the industry prefers the term expendable) because they crash into their targets rather than launching a munition.

Improvised loitering munition systems used by Ukraine have generated dozens of online videos of operators stalking their quarry and with ruthless effect, footage that might ordinarily remain classified but is now being used to demoralise prospective and current Russian soldiers.

The only drawback (unless you are the target) is that drones like Switchblade are a bit of a use-it-or-lose proposition once they are up, as opposed to copter-like or rotary lift machines that are far more similar to conventional drones.

Ukraine has made enormous inroads in repurposing cheap commercial and consumer drones that are more familiar to volunteer defence forces than proprietary systems.

Australia’s Army has opted for the smaller version of the Switchblade (there’s a 600 model as well as a 300) that earned its keep in Afghanistan with US ground troops looking to knock out enemy combatants performing tasks like placing improvised explosive devices or setting booby traps.

“With autonomous weapon systems increasingly prevalent, the Defence Strategic Review made clear that new technology and asymmetric advantage are important priorities. That’s why the Government is taking action to enhance the ADF’s use of drones,” said Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy.

“The delivery of this proven precision loitering munition demonstrates the speed at which we are introducing capabilities to the ADF. It shows the Australian Government is getting on with the job of providing the ADF with state-of-the-art technologies it needs to meet the threats we face.”

While there’s no dollar figure cited in the official ministerial announcement, defence industry unit price estimates for Switchblade 300 Block 20 are around US$52,000, or about $78,000 in local currency.

The price is potentially cheaper for larger numbers, but as technology-based consumables, it more sense to incrementally stock to the requirement to make sure you get the latest tech, like cameras, sensors and targeting.

The first Switchblades arrive this year and will be deployed and ready for use in 2025, presumably after a bit of target practice with inert and live units.

Technically the US class systems like Switchblade as a missile rather than a drone, hence the use of the term munition.

In Australia, it seems ministers prefer to emphasise the drone-age element, an area where there’s been political flak in the past.

“The Switchblade 300 will add to the ADF’s large array of drones, including models that can be armed. The ADF has several different types of non-armed drones and drones capable of being armed, including models that have been in service for more than a decade,” a statement from Conroy said.

Whether it’s a drone or a missile doesn’t really matter, it’ll kill you just as quickly either way.

As for why the army is buying from the US instead of locally, like the DefendTex D40 loitering munition that’s been sent to Ukraine: it seems to be a matter of horses for courses and one product not necessarily excluding the other.

There’s also a likely bit more bang on the Switchblade with the smaller D40 weighing in at only 200 grams, and is reusable as expendable, making it last longer in the air and better for situational awareness.


Killer flying robots are here. What do we do now?

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