Switchblade 600 Kamikaze Drone Is The First Named Replicator Program Weapon

In addition to the Switchblade 600, the Pentagon is also looking to purchase drone boats and counter drone systems.

byHoward Altman|
U.S. Homeland photo


The Switchblade 600 loitering munition is the first weapon the Defense Department (DoD) announced by name that it will buy for its ambitious Replicator program, the Pentagon announced Monday morning. The drone, made by AeroVironment, will spearhead a program designed to field “thousands” of attritable, autonomous platforms to counter China’s massive military build-up.

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The first tranche of Replicator capabilities also includes uncrewed surface vehicles (USV), and counter-uncrewed aerial systems (c-UAS) "of various sizes and payloads from several traditional and non-traditional vendors,” the Pentagon said in its announcement. It did not name any of those systems.

The Switchblade 600, a tube-launched loitering munition that can provide reconnaissance or strike capabilities, has seen service in Ukraine against Russian armor. It is equipped with the same multipurpose warhead used in the Javelin anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) that have become well known for its ability to destroy Russian armor.

The full Switchblade 600 system. You can watch the short presentation from AeroVironment by clicking here.

It can fly for about 40 minutes and has electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor built into a gimbaled ball for surveillance and targeting by a remote operator. It has a threshold range at which it can stay connected to the operator of about 25 miles (depending on conditions such as terrain), cruises at 70 miles per hour, and can dash up to 115 mph. The 600 can be set up and launched by a single soldier in less than 10 minutes, the company says. The whole system weighs 120 pounds with the drone itself weighing about 33 pounds, according to AeroVironment.

The 600 version has a larger warhead and greater range than the company’s Switchblade 300. Switchblade was first introduced into service with the U.S. military close to a decade and a half ago and began operations with Ukraine in the summer of 2022.. You can read more about these suicide drones and their development in this past in-depth report.

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Replicator-related funding for the Switchblade 600 will also boost Army's Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance (LASSO) program, the service's acquisition chief Doug Bush told DefenseScoop last week during a meeting with reporters.

The USVs procured under Replicator will be developed through the Pentagon’s  Production-Ready, Inexpensive, Maritime Expeditionary (PRIME) Small Unmanned Surface Vehicle (sUSV) project. That’s something we suggested might happen in our story here.

PRIME is a Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO), a process allowing U.S. and international companies to pitch technologies to DoD in a fast-track process for a prototype contract. Launched on Jan. 30, 2024, the PRIME CSO received “over 100  applications from commercial technology companies” the Pentagon said.

A pair of Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV) drone boats. (Textron) Textron

Hours before the Pentagon made its Replicator announcement, Ukraine carried out another USV attack in its ongoing campaign against Russian warships in the Black Sea. You can see that attack in the video below produced by Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR).

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To pay for these programs, DoD secured about $500 million in funding from the Fiscal Year 2024 budget. The Pentagon has asked for about the same amount of money in its Fiscal Year Presidential Budget request.

With those funds secured, DoD  “is on track to award several contracts this summer,” the Pentagon said.

"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" Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said in a statement. "The entire Department has come together to help make this a reality."

Replicator was announced by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks in August 2023. The objective, she said at the time, was to overcome “the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass: more ships, more missiles, more people.” Hicks also identified the particular challenge posed by China’s rapidly diversifying anti-access/area-denial capabilities.

Replicator is intended to continue and build upon the U.S. ability to “outmatch adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing, and outmaneuvering them; we augment manufacturing and mobilization with our real comparative advantage, which is the innovation and spirit of our people,” she added.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

It is unknown how many Switchblade 600s, USVs or c-UAS systems the Pentagon is purchasing through Replicator, or when they will be delivered. However, with the U.S. struggling to achieve any sort of quantitative advantage over China, this is a small step on a long road.

"This is just the beginning," Adm.Christopher Grady, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement. "Replicator is helping us jumpstart the delivery of critical capabilities at scale. We will build on that momentum with industry partners to deliver what the warfighter needs, and remove barriers to doing so again and again."

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com