Sharing One of Our Newest Weapons Systems

The Pentagon revealed on April 21st that they would be providing Ukrainian forces with 121 new Phoenix Ghost tactical unmanned aerial systems (UAS). They are reported to “very nicely” suit the needs of the Ukrainian military in their fight against the Russians who invaded their nation on February 24th. For the uninitiated, “tactical unmanned aerial systems” is another way of saying “drones.”

What we know about the Phoenix Ghost so far. Video courtesy of YouTube and our friends at CRUX.

Right off the bat, I’ll admit to the fact that it’s a little bit difficult to write about classified weapons systems because they are…well…secret. I promise, however, to dig up all the open-source information I can on this and bring you up to speed on what we know.

The drones are manufactured by Aevex Aerospace in Solana Beach, California, and are currently in the U.S. Air Force arsenal. There may be as many as 500 of them in existence. They are new technology, only entering into service in 2022. The press has referred to them as “low-cost unmanned attackers.” Of course, “low-cost” is a relative term, and I doubt you or I could fund one of these out of our pocket.

Hunter-Killers

They are loitering UAVs, said to be tailor-made for Ukraine’s efforts in Donbas. A UAV is, as noted above, an unmanned aerial vehicle. “Loitering” refers to how they fly around lazily, usually in broad circles, searching for a target. Think of a bird of prey. You’ll also hear them referred to as “suicide” or “Kamikaze” drones because once they dive on and destroy their target, they aren’t coming back.

A Yemeni man looks at graffiti showing a US drone after al-Qaida in Yemen confirmed the death of its leader in a US drone strike on 16 June 2015. Image Credit: Yahya Arhab/EPA

John Kirby, the United States Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, had a lot to say about these drones in a recent press conference:

“On the Phoenix Ghost, this is a drone that has been in development before the invasion, clearly. The Air Force was working on this and in discussions with the Ukrainians again about their requirements. We believe that this particular system would very nicely suit their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine. And so, it is, it was already in development, but we will continue to move that development in ways there are attuned to Ukrainian requirements for unmanned aerial systems of a tactical nature in eastern Ukraine.”

Many reports say that the Phoenix drones are similar in many ways to the Switchblade drones already being used in Ukraine. To date, we have already delivered about 400 of those to Ukrainian forces.  Switchblades loiter, acquire a target, and smash directly into them in a devastating strike. Mr. Kirby had more to say on the matter: “This unmanned aerial system is designed for tactical operations, in other words, largely, but not exclusively, to attack targets.” 

They are badass, killer attack drones. That’s what I would have said. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m not a politician.

He continued:

“It, like almost all aerial systems, of course, has optics, so it can still…it can also be used to give you a site picture of what it’s seeing, of course.  But its principal focus is to attack.” 

The Pentagon declined to discuss any details regarding its range and precise capabilities. They did note, however, that Ukrainian forces trained to use the Switchblade drones should be able to be trained to use Phoenix Ghost drones reasonably quickly.

What We Know At This Time

UAS gives the warfighter a notable advantage on the battlefield over unsuspecting ground targets, operating silently and providing real-time information to its ground operator.  Potential targets include up to medium-sized armored vehicles, critical command and control centers, artillery positions, and troop encampments.

The ability of the Phoenix Ghost to loiter for hours allows a battlefield commander to use its sensors to develop a greater overview of the battlefield he is fighting on and then assign the Ghost to hit the critical targets like command posts and artillery positions from a much longer range than the Switchblade drone.  It would also allow him to have local control over a precision-guided munition that could be dropped “danger close” to his own troops overmatched in a tough fight, rather than wait for air support which may not be able to reach them in time in the contested skies over Ukraine.

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A commander with half a dozen Phoenix Ghosts at his disposal would enjoy a kind of local air superiority that would be difficult for Russia to counter effectively.  It can fly and loiter above the range of small arms fire from the ground and any Russian plane sent to intercept it would be engaged by man-portable air defense systems like the Stinger missile. In the Russian way of looking at things, they would be unlikely to risk a multi-million dollar jet to a Stinger missile just to get a shot at a low-cost disposable drone.

The long flight time would also allow a unit with ten drones to perform strike missions well behind the lines, hitting fuel and ammunition depots and other rear area assets that can stall offensive operations by an enemy.  They are very small in size and at low altitude would not show up any but the most sophisticated air search radar systems

The Phoenix Ghost has a vertical take-off (VTO) capability. This enables it to be launched nearly everywhere the Infantry can go. Its mission endurance window is said to be about six hours, far more than the Switchblade’s forty-minute loitering time. This will allow it to have far more time to hunt and track its target before delivering its lethal payload. We know that its integrated optics allow for both day and night operation, the latter aided by built-in infrared (IR) capabilities.

The qualities of the Phoenix Ghost will provide the Ukrainians with cutting-edge technology that will give them the best chance possible to control their battlespace.

SOFREP continues to monitor the situation.