Yesterday the Pentagon announced it was sending a new, previously unknown type of loitering munition to Ukraine called Phoenix Ghost. But while anti-tank weapons are being shipped by the thousand, only tiny numbers of loitering munitions are being sent. What are these new weapons, why do they come from the Air Force rather than the Army, and can the numbers be ramped up?
Loitering munitions, popularly called kamikaze drones, are a new and potentially game-changing type of weapon. Their high precision and ability to track down and identify targets from long range make them ideal for asymmetric conflicts like Ukraine, where the defender is heavily outmatched in armor and artillery.
Shipments of Switchblade loitering munitions were announced last month, but these are mainly the 300 model, a 5.5 pound weapon with a range of six miles and a small warhead effective against personnel and light vehicles. Commentators hoped for supplies of the much bigger Switchblade 600 introduced in 2020. This is a 33-pound weapon with a range of more than 25 miles and a loiter time of over 40 minutes, with a heavy warhead comparable to that of a Javelin missile able to take out the heaviest armor. The Switchblades can be used in hunter-killer teams with Puma drones also supplied by the U.S..
From the numbers released so far, there were just 100 Switchblade 300s in the first batch, going up to a total of 700 in the second batch and just 10 Switchblade 600s. Some commentators have claimed that each ‘Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems’ includes a launch unit and ten munitions, but makers AeroVironment
The low numbers are likely because the U.S. Army simply does not have a lot of Switchblades in stock. While the Switchblade 300 has been in use since 2011 it has always been a niche weapon, used mainly by Special Forces, and Army procurement documents indicate they only purchased 900 this year, and 425 the year before – and may have expended most of those in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The new Switchblade 600 has only been purchased in trial quantities.
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The shortage of Switchblades is the likely motive behind the DoD’s latest announcement that it was sending Phoenix Ghost munitions to Ukraine.
A senior defense official said that the mysterious new drone was developed by the U.S. Air Force specifically for Ukrainian requirements – which would be surprising as it implies a development cycle of just a few weeks. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby later stated that Phoenix Ghost was developed before the invasion.
“It was developed for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians need right now in Donbas,” he told reporters.
Pentagon official would give no details of the Phoenix Ghost, saying only that it resembles the Switchblade, is “designed to deliver a punch” and can be used with minimal training. It was developed for the Air Force by AEVEX Aerospace, an established Pentagon contractor, who have also declined to provide details.
AEVEX are not known as a drone maker, and their company site lists many activities but nothing of this sort. But a 2021 press release mentions that “the company does everything under the aerospace umbrella, like data collection software for airborne operations to building drones,” and the company has previous advertised vacancies for tactical drone operators and trainers.
The big question is whether Phoenix Ghost is a small, short-range system or something with greater reach that can take out tanks. Politico may have answered that within a few hours of the announcement by talking to retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and member of the AEVEX board.
“It’s a one-way aircraft that is effective against medium armored ground targets,” Deptula told Politico.
According to Deptula, Phoenix Ghost can takeoff vertically and fly for more than six hours seeking targets with daylight and infra-red sensors. Even at low speed, this implies a range of tens of miles.
So we have three vital pieces of information. One is that Phoenix Ghost was developed by the Air Force, not the Army who have fielded loitering munitions and drove the the Switchblade as well as the Air Launched Effects (ALE) family of loitering weapons for helicopters, and other loitering systems. Another is that “medium armored” means it was not designed to take out tanks but some other sort of target. And thirdly, there is that extended loitering time, vastly longer than needed for most battlefield use — almost all similar munitions loiter for less than an hour.
The Air Force is much less interested in taking out tanks than tackling enemy air defenses. (The Russian Air Force’s failure to knock out Ukraine’s S-300 Surface-to-air missiles early on as expected has led to their continued high rate of casualties). One of the best means of suppression them is to use anti-radiation missiles, which home in on the radars guiding surface to air missiles. Operators respond by only turning radar on for a few seconds at a time. Hence the need for loitering munitions which can orbit over the combat zone for a prolonged period.
This is exactly the role of the Israeli Harpy, designed circle enemy defenses for up to nine hours and automatically locate and destroy any radar emitters which are turned on. Harpies destroyed a number of Azeri air defence systems during the 2020 conflict. Its targets are likely to be vehicles like tracked Buk missile launchers which are armored but not as heavily as tanks. The Harpy was later given new sensors to become the Harop, which can be directed against a wide range of targets but which also has an unusually long loiter time.
It seems likely then that the Ghost Phoenix is an Air Force weapon for suppressing defenses which like Harpy, can be repurposed to attack other targets as needed.
Again, however, the number of weapons being supplied is low, with the oddly-specific number of 121 Phoenix Ghost munitions. A defense official said that the U.S. has manufactured “most” of the 121 drones suggesting that not all of them are ready to be shipped yet.
Clearly there is a strong demand for loitering munitions in Ukraine, and U.S. planners will be scanning through every available program to see what can be rushed out to the front line. But scaling up production of the current models is likely to take months at least given their highly specialized nature.
One option would be to seek new sources of loitering munitions from existing manufacturers abroad. In 2017 Ukraine signed a deal with Polish electronics company WB Group for the company’s Warmate loitering munition, an eleven-pound weapon with a range of ten miles. The plan was to develop a mobile truck launcher for several Warmates under a project called Sokol (“Falcon”). The project ran into problems integrating the vehicle and the drone, culminating in a court case between Ukrainian developers and their own Ministry of Defence in August 2021. Neither Sokol nor the Warmate appear to be in service yet.
The Pentagon has previously expressed interest in the Hero series of loitering munitions made by Israeli company uVision, including the Hero-120 which can take out tanks from 25 miles away. Again the question will be when they can deliver.
Ukraine faces an opponent able to pound them with heavy artillery and rockets from long range, while bringing up armored formations to attempt breakthroughs. Ukrainian loitering munitions could silence the artillery and break up armored assaults before they start – if only they can get enough of them.
Images on Twitter from OSINT researcher Arslon Xudosi indicate that the Ukrainians are not from vehicle-mounted Sokol launchers as planned, but from simple ground launchers. These are presumably Warmates from the 2017 deal, which have larger locally-made warheads than the original but probably retain the range of around 20 miles. One has reportedly already been used successfully on a Russian tank, but the report remains unconfirmed.
The Phoenix Ghost is a small aerial loitering munition (explosive drone) designed by US company Aevex Aerospace. According to a senior US defense official, it is broadly similar to the AeroVironment Switchblade. Aevex Phoenix Ghost. Type.What company makes the Phoenix Ghost? ›
Developed by Aevex Aerospace in California, the Phoenix Ghost is effective against medium-armored vehicles, Politico cited retired Aevex board member Lt.How big is the Phoenix Ghost? ›
The Phoenix Ghost has "similar, but not exact" capabilities as the Switchblade which has a 1.3 m wingspan. For another example, the Polish Warmate (1.6 m wingspan) has a loitering endurance of up to 40 minutes, too.Can switchblades take out artillery? ›
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.How many drones Ukraine has? ›
One Ukrainian drone manufacturer estimates the country's forces have 6,000 drones, but it's impossible to confirm this. Such commercial drones can be fitted with small bombs. However, they are mainly used to spot enemy troops and to direct attacks. "Ukraine doesn't have as much ammunition as Russia," says Dr Miron.How does Phoenix Ghost drone work? ›
Know more on what is Phoenix Ghost Drone… - YouTubeWhat is the newest military drone? ›
Meet 'Phoenix Ghost,' the US Air Force's new drone perfect for Ukraine's war with Russia - Breaking Defense.What is the range of the Ghost drone? ›
Capture golden memories from up in the sky with the F100GP Ghost Drone with camera for adults. Equipped with a 1080P HD camera drone, this remote control drone lets you capture images and video footage from up to 500 meters away. Get your hands on this impressive GoPro-compatible RC drone with camera today!What is the Switchblade weapon system? ›
Switchblade is a miniature, high-precision strike tactical missile system developed by AeroVironment, primarily for the US Army and US Marine Corps. It is designed to engage stationary and moving targets in hostile environments, while reducing collateral damage.What are ghost drones used for? ›
The "Phoenix Ghost" with its unmanned aerial systems allows the Army to "watch" targets and attack. Reports claim just like the Switchblade drone, the Phoenix Ghost is also a low-cost single-use suicide drone. It is a loitering munition which flies around a target as it hits the target.
Tactical X Drone is made to capture high-quality videos and photos. This drone captures 4k quality videos and at the same time captures high-quality photos at 12 megapixels. Tactical X Drone is the only drone of its size that can capture such high-quality video and photos.Are Switchblade drones being used in Ukraine? ›
The platform is currently in service with the United States Armed Forces and the British Armed Forces, while the Biden Administration has sent some 100 Switchblade units, consisting of around 1,000 drones to Ukraine.Can the Switchblade drone destroy a tank? ›
The larger Switchblade 600 - the one soon heading to Ukraine - is a next-generation loitering missile that's able to destroy armoured targets like tanks, but can still be set up and operational in less than 10 minutes, according to AeroVironment.
Firing one Switchblade 600 would cost more than $10,000, while firing one Javelin anti-tank missile would cost around $78,000.How many Russian tanks are destroyed? ›
A total of 4,366 armored combat vehicles have been destroyed, as well as 1,126 artillery units and 853 unmanned aerial vehicles.How much does a TB2 drone cost? ›
How much is a Bayraktar TB2 drone? According to Ukrainian contracts, the drone control unit also costs about $5 million. Bayraktar TB2 taking off. This price is based on the fact that Lithuanians started a fundraising campaign in 2022 to help the Ukrainian military purchase the Bayraktar TB-2 drone.How many Bayraktar does Ukraine lost? ›
The Ukrainian military reportedly started the war with just 30 of these drones and have lost only 8 in combat. Additionally, they recently received a gift of another TB2 drone from the Lithuanians who crowd-sourced funds to purchase one.How many tanks does Ukraine have? ›
The Ukrainian army had around 900 tanks—T-64s, mostly—in its arsenal on day one of the war. More than enough for four, five or even six tank brigades plus tank battalions in infantry brigades. In five months of hard fighting the Ukrainians have lost around 230 tanks that analysts can confirm.What drones are being sent to Ukraine? ›
The White House will provide 580 Phoenix Ghost drones and five high-mobility artillery rocket systems to Ukraine as part of the latest security package to help in the fight against Russia, officials confirmed Friday.Who makes the best military drones? ›
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A modern kamikaze drone, equipped with a powerful explosive, flew straight into the tank, causing irreparable damage to the enemy. The whole process of destroying the enemy was filmed by a camera located on the killer drone.What do Switchblade drones do? ›
As it is fired into the air, the wings automatically fold out like a switchblade – which is where the drone gets its name. As the drone leaves the tube, the wings immediately unfold and it begins to fly. Once in the air, the drone can be operated from a distance thanks to the camera fitted inside of its nose.What is the range of a Phoenix Ghost Drone? ›
“In the close rear” suggests that Phoenix Ghost is not a long-range system in spite of its long flight time, but can still hit Russian vehicles behind the front lines. Switchblade 600 had a range of 40km, the 300 just 10 km.What drones are being sent to Ukraine? ›
The White House will provide 580 Phoenix Ghost drones and five high-mobility artillery rocket systems to Ukraine as part of the latest security package to help in the fight against Russia, officials confirmed Friday.