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, with a similar number 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.
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.