Watch CBS News

Switchblade drone: How the "kamikaze" anti-tank weapon works

The Switchblade "kamikaze" drone
The Switchblade "kamikaze" drone 04:42

There's new a drone on the battlefield. Only six months old, video of it in action is still secret. Unlike armed drones that carry weapons under the wings, launching them and returning to base, the Switchblade "kamikaze" drone carries its own warhead, and blows itself up – taking out tanks, armored vehicles and artillery nests with it. 

"It's a one-and-done drone," said Wahid Nawabi, who runs Aerovironment, which makes the Switchblade at a secure location he's asked us not to reveal.

The Switchblade 600 tactical missile system contains high-precision optics and an anti-armor warhead for use against non-line-of-sight targets, such as tanks, artillery, and armored vehicles.  Aerovironment

So far 700 Switchblades – both large and small -- are being sent to Ukraine to be used against the Russians. "We understand what the people in Ukraine are doing. This is our part to help," said John Aldana, the program manager for the Switchblade.

He explained to CBS News national security correspondent David Martin why the drone – a missile placed in its launcher with its wings folded – is called the Switchblade: "It fits inside this tube. At the bottom we have what is known as a gas generator. It pushes the Switchblade out. Once it's clear of the tube, the wings automatically flip out, and it happens very quickly, just like a switchblade."


In the nose are cameras which scan the battlefield, sending video back to an operator controlling the Switchblade from a tablet

"Once it finds the target, the operator has the ability to essentially dive bomb into the target and take out the target," said Aldana. "It's a one-way mission."

Crates containing Switchblades are already being loaded for Ukraine. "We've been in touch with the Ukrainian military," said Nawabi. "They could use thousands of them. The type of conflict they're engaged with today really is almost ideal for the Switchblade capability."

He's talking specifically about the long Russian convoys creeping toward the front lines. "Switchblade can just literally take them out like popcorn, literally," he said.

Martin asked, "Is the enemy going to hear it?"

"No. It's very, very quiet," said Aldana.

"But if you look up you can see it?"

"Well, it's not easy, right? I mean, it looks big on a table, but when it's in the sky it's very hard to see."

When asked if a Switchblade can be shot down, Aldana replied, "As far as I know, it's never happened."

But the signals which control the Switchblade can be jammed, and so far only 100 have reached the battlefield. Still, the weapon has earned Wahid Nawabi a place (along with Vice President Kamala Harris) on the list of Americans whom Russia has sanctioned. 

It's not his first encounter with the Russians. "I was born and raised in Afghanistan," Nawabi said. "I left Afghanistan right at the beginning of the occupation of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan back in the early 1980s, so in some respect, this is very emotional and personal for me as well."

At the age of 14, the oldest of four children, he learned what happens when the Russian army invades your country. "I've been there. I know exactly what it's like. Life changes in a matter of seconds, completely changes upside-down."

And he remembers how one weapon, the American-made Stinger missile, helped chase the Russians out of Afghanistan.

"I vividly remember the Stinger missile," he told Martin. "I saw what it did to the Russian helicopters. Probably have seen a half a dozen of them with my own naked eyes get shot from the sky while watching from the ground."

Now he wants to see Russian tanks destroyed by his Switchblade drones.

"A capability that you cannot hear, you cannot see, you cannot tell where it came from, and boom! All of a sudden it hits you," he said. "Just creates havoc in your mind: 'Oh my God, what is this? What's happening to us?'"

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Carol Ross. 

See also: 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.