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Biden admin weighs providing Ukraine killer drones called Switchblades

The Biden administration is considering providing Ukraine with U.S.-made killer drones — cutting-edge guided missiles that could accurately target Russian tanks and artillery positions from miles away — two congressional officials briefed on the matter told NBC News.

No decisions have been made, but the officials said the White House is mulling whether to equip Ukraine with explosives-laden “loitering missiles,” called Switchblades, as part of a new package of military aid President Joe Biden is expected to discuss Wednesday.

There are two variants of the weapon, the Switchblade 300 and the 600, that have been sold to U.S. Special Operations Command by manufacturer AeroVironment, based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The 300 is designed for pinpoint strikes on personnel, and the larger 600 is meant to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles. 

NBC News reported on an exclusive demonstration of the Switchblade 300 in December. AeroVironment officials said at the time that the government forbade them from demonstrating the 600.

AeroVironment officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“We stand with our allies and sovereign nations in their right to protect their homelands and their very lives when this fundamental right is threatened,” the company said in a statement on its website headlined “AeroVironment stands with the people of Ukraine and all of NATO.”

The Switchblades are essentially robotic smart bombs, equipped with cameras, guidance systems and explosives. They can be programmed to automatically strike targets miles away, and they can be steered around objectives until the time is right to strike. The company says the 600 can fly for 40 minutes and up to 50 miles.

They are single-use weapons, which is why they have been dubbed “kamikaze drones.” But they are orders of magnitude cheaper than the Hellfire missiles fired by U.S. Reaper drones. The 300 can cost as little as $6,000, by some estimates.

Both weapons can be set up in minutes and launched from tubes. They fly much faster than the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that Ukraine has been using to inflict damage on Russia, and presumably they would be able to penetrate the spotty air defenses Russia is maintaining over its forces.

If the Switchblade were given to Ukraine, it could result in the most significant use of the weapon in combat to date. The U.S. military used the Switchblade in combat under limited circumstances in Afghanistan and elsewhere but has not publicized that fact, sources familiar with the matter have said.  

Many questions remain about the proposed arrangement with Ukraine, including how many of the missiles the U.S. has in its stockpiles, how fast AeroVironment can manufacture new ones and how much training Ukrainians would require to operate the systems.

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The United Kingdom is the only foreign country that so far has been authorized to purchase the Switchblade.

Sources with knowledge of the matter said Ukraine is asking the Biden administration for armed drones, anti-ship missiles, “off-the-shelf” electronic jamming equipment and surface-to-air missiles that can strike aircraft at higher altitudes.

The wish list recently submitted to Washington by Ukraine also includes a request for more portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons, which have already proved crucial in the government’s fight against a larger, better-armed Russian force, said the sources, including two European diplomats familiar with Kyiv’s requirements.

Ukraine wanted help to bolster its electronic warfare efforts against Russia with “off-the-shelf” gear, including satellite navigation and communications-jamming equipment and ground-based communications to oversee drones, the sources said.

It remains unclear whether the Biden administration will approve some of the requests for weapons and equipment, including armed drones or anti-ship missiles. The administration previously has sought to avoid delivering weapons that feature sensitive technology, because it could either fall into the hands of Russian troops or prove impractical when Ukrainian forces need equipment that can quickly be placed into action with a minimum of training.

The Ukrainian wish list was first reported by The New York Times.

Administration officials also worry about taking action that could raise the risk of a direct conflict between NATO and Russia. When the administration ruled out a proposal to help Poland send Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine, the Defense Department cited an intelligence assessment that concluded such a move could escalate tensions with Russia.

The Biden administration declined to comment.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is due to deliver a virtual speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday urging the White House to use $3 billion in emergency military aid recently approved by Congress “without delay.”

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The letter, which included a classified annex, called for providing many of the items requested by Ukraine, including “small” drones, air defense systems, “off-the-shelf” secure communications equipment and more anti-tank Javelin weapons and Stinger missile systems. In addition, the lawmakers — from armed services, intelligence and foreign affairs committees in the House and the Senate — urged the administration to provide Ukraine with grenade launchers and ammunition, artillery systems, rocket systems, mortars, potable water systems, gas masks and chemical protective equipment, range finders, rations, first aid kits and other gear.

The letter cited the effective role of portable anti-tank and anti-air weapons systems for Ukrainian forces but said it was vital to restock supplies of munitions. 

“As the invasion drags on, Russia will reorganize, resupply, consolidate its forces, and modify its tactics in an attempt to violently accelerate its advances. Ukrainian forces will likely have to expend munitions from these and other weapons at an increasing rate — meaning the need for restocking will only grow more urgent with each passing day,” the lawmakers wrote.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said last week that the U.S. was committed to equipping Ukraine with “the kinds of capabilities that we know the Ukrainians need and are using very well.”

Kirby also referred to discussions with NATO allies that have Russian-origin equipment of possible use for Ukraine’s military. “Some of that material we have and are providing. Some of that material we don’t have but we know others have, and we’re helping coordinate that, as well,” he said.

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