A US Marine launches a Switchblade drone during an exercise at Camp Pendleton in California in September 2020.
US Marine Corps/Cpl. Jennessa Davey
Russia has devoted increasing military resources to Ukraine but maintains an outpost in Kaliningrad.
Perched on the Baltic, nuclear and conventional forces in Kaliningrad can strike deep into Europe.
Loitering munitions that Ukraine is using may be useful for tracking Russian missiles in Kaliningrad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 has pushed tensions between Moscow and NATO to their highest level in decades
Over the past 18 months, there have been close calls along the alliance’s borders with the two warring countries, and NATO and Russian aircraft have tangled over the Black Sea. The tense environment has been punctuated by Russian threats of nuclear strikes against the West in response to NATO’s military support for Ukraine.
While the world has focused on the fighting in Ukraine, Russian forces are still present in Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave on the Baltic Sea, where Moscow has based its Baltic Fleet, stationed ground troops, and stored nuclear weapons.
Drones vs. nukes
S-400 surface-to-air missile systems at a military base in Kaliningrad in March 2019.
Kaliningrad is a key military outpost sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic coast. It has long hosted both nuclear and conventional forces, though Russia’s military has moved several units based there to Ukraine since the fighting started last year.
Kaliningrad’s location allows the Kremlin to threaten several NATO members with long-range weapons, and it could be a base from which Russian forces could interfere with a NATO response to a clash with Russia.
While chances of a war with Russia seem low, Kaliningrad still represents “a major threat” to NATO, and the alliance need to invest in troops and weapons to neutralize Russian forces there in case of a conflict, William DiRubbio, a second lieutenant in the US Air Force, wrote in a recent article published by the journal of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
DiRubbio argues that NATO could use special-operations forces to prevent Russia from launching the tactical nuclear weapons it has stored in Kaliningrad by targeting the Iskander ballistic missiles that would likely carry those weapons.
An Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile.
Russian Defense Ministry
Going after the Russia’s nuclear command-and-control infrastructure “could have immense deterrence and escalatory ramifications” and should be avoided, as should targeting the nuclear warheads themselves, but taking out the delivery platform would thwart Russian nuclear launches, according to DiRubbio.
Since Iskander missiles are mobile, special-operations troops would be “the best method to deal with them,” DiRubbio writes, citing missions by the US Army’s Delta Force and its British cousin, the Special Air Service, to hunt down and destroy Iraq’s Scud missiles during the Gulf War as precedent.
NATO forces could use loitering munitions — drones designed to linger near a target before crashing into and destroying it — for such a mission in Kaliningrad. “A focus should also be on the training of these forces with the Phoenix Ghost and Switchblade drones to assist them in their search and destroy efforts,” DiRubbio writes.
Special operators are trained to undertake such difficult missions, and one could see a Delta Force squadron armed with loitering munitions, also known as “kamikaze drones,” infiltrating Kaliningrad in order to do it. “To enable quick action in the case of conflict, NATO ought to begin investment in small staging camps near Poland and Lithuania’s respective border with Kaliningrad,” DiRubbio writes.
Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost
A US Marine prepares a Switchblade drone for launch during an exercise at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in July 2021.
US Marine Corps/Pfc. Sarah Pysher
The US has sent tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and provided thousands of weapons, ranging from main battle tanks down to one-way attack drones, like the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost, that a few soldiers can carry and operate.
With relatively short range, these drones are designed to take out relatively small targets on the battlefield, whether its a few troops in a trench or an armored vehicle. The US has provided a few hundred of those two drones to Ukraine, including both version of the Switchblade.
The Switchblade 300 packs an explosive charge roughly equivalent to a Claymore anti-personnel mine to take out infantry targets. It is fired from a mortar-like tube and has a range of 6 miles, though it can stay in the air for just 15 minutes. The Switchblade 600 is designed for heavy-duty targets, like tanks, and packs an explosive charge similar to that of a Javelin anti-tank missile. It has a range of 24 miles and can stay in the air for about 40 minutes.
Little is known about the capabilities of the Phoenix Ghost loitering munition. However, US officials have stated that it is a one-way attack munition akin to the Switchblade.
Loitering munitions, whether provided by international partners or built by Ukrainian troops have had success in Ukraine, helping shape the battlefield at the tactical level. By pairing them with highly trained special-operations troops operating from forward bases, as DiRubbio outlines, they could also prove valuable in other serious contingencies.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.