Mysterious ‘Phoenix Ghost’ Suicide Drones Headed To Ukraine

A mysterious new loitering ‘kamikaze drone’ called Phoenix Ghost, developed by the U.S. Air Force specifically for Ukraine’s war against Russia, is part of the latest U.S. security assistance package announced on April 21.

The loitering munition is an all-new platform developed quickly, with input from Ukraine, to address the nation’s military requirements as it tries to blunt Russia’s renewed assault in the Donbas region, according to Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby. 

“This was rapidly developed by the Air Force in response specifically to Ukrainian requirements,” Kirby told reporters on April 21. More than 121 — an oddly specific, yet mysteriously vague number — Phoenix Ghosts are headed to Ukraine along with the newest $800 million aid package announced Thursday.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Julian Alvarado, prepares to launch a Switchblade unmanned aircraft system during Littoral Exercise II (LEX II) on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, March 3, 2022. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ryan Ramsammy

Phoenix Ghost provides similar, “but not [the] exact,” capabilities as the AeroVironment Switchblade tube-launched loitering munition, Kirby said during a call with reporters on April 21, the 57th day of Russia’s war on Ukraine. There are differences “in the scope of capability for the Phoenix Ghost,” but what those differences are is unclear. It will be useful against different types of targets, he said.

Switchblade is a tube-launched loitering munition that carries both a camera and a warhead. It can be used for surveillance or to attack targets of opportunity. It can target a fixed position without anyone manually piloting it. Much more information on Switchblade and a range of suicide drones and their use in modern warfare is available here.

The U.S. already has already donated 400 Switchblade loitering munitions to Ukraine. The first shipment of 100 mostly made it to the country last week, when a further shipment of 300 was announced. Switchblades come in multiple sizes for use against different targets — the -300 and far more powerful, anti-armor-capable -600 model. The latter is in very short supply as it was just introduced into U.S. stockpiles. In many cases, the deadly drones can be reused for surveillance missions if they are not employed as kinetic weapons against enemy forces.

Asked how the Phoenix Ghost got its name, Kirby said “I have no idea. I have no idea. I do not know.”

“I’m gonna be loath to get into much more detail about the system at this point for classification purposes, but you can safely assume that, in general, it works,” Kirby said. “It provides the same sort of tactical capability that a Switchblade does. Switchblade is a one-way drone if you will, and it clearly is designed to deliver a punch. It’s a tactical UAS, and Phoenix ghost is of that same category.”

Later in the day, Kirby said the system, developed under a U.S. military contract with AEVEX Aerospace, was already in development before the current conflict “for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians currently need in Donbas.”

AEVEX describes itself as providing end-to-end aircraft and sensor system design, provision, integration, operations, sustainment, and data analysis. The War Zone has reached out to AEVEX for more information on its involvement in developing the drone and the design of the aircraft itself, but has not heard back. The company told Breaking Defense it had “no comment on the issue.”

AEVEX does not appear to be an unmanned systems manufacturer. It’s possible the company acted as a prime contractor to develop and integrate components onto an existing UAS, such as control technologies and a warhead. It’s also possible it is working as a domestic contractor lead for an imported or licensed design.

In November 2021, AEVEX was awarded a contract with the U.S. General Services Administration under the ASTRO program that encompasses everything involving manned, unmanned, or optionally manned platforms and robotics. That 10-year contract has a $2 billion ceiling and includes use of the company’s test and training range in Roswell, New Mexico, rapid prototyping services, and FAA Part 145 certified repair station for the “design, engineering, and integration of sensors and special mission aircraft, manned and unmanned,” AEVEX CEO Brian Raduenz said in a statement at the time of the contract award. It is not clear whether the development of Phoenix Ghost was performed under that contract, but the scope of work would include such integration of unmanned systems. The contract will “significantly improve our ability to support innovative R&D and data management efforts across aviation for our warfighters operating in all domains,” Raduenz said.  

Most tube-launched expendable drones can be deployed from the ground, a vehicle, a seagoing vessel, or an aircraft and are controlled by individual troops. Some loitering UAS have been launched by larger drones, though that is an advanced capability. A Switchblade-300 weighs about 5.5 pounds and has a 10-kilometer range with 15 minutes of endurance cruising at 63 miles per hour. The larger 600 series can fly for 40 minutes, weighs 55 pounds — including a 33-pound warhead — and has a threshold range of about 40 kilometers. We really don’t know if this is tube-launched or even a converted multi-rotor type or something else.

The new system should be readily absorbed by existing Ukrainian forces but will require some training, Kirby said. 

“It will require some minimal training for knowledgeable UAS operators to be able to use it and we’re going to be working through those training requirements directly with the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” he said. 

While the exact design of Phoenix Ghost is unknown, suicide drones of many types have been highly effective in modern conflict and need not be highly complex systems. Once again, this new system could be an armed quadcopter, for all anyone knows. Armed commercially available unmanned systems are useful, easily deployed and could be delivered en mass relatively cheaply, as The War Zone Editor-in-Chief Tyler Rogoway mused in March. In fact, enemies of the U.S. and other nefarious actors around the globe have proven this for over five years, converting off-the-shelf hobby and commercial drones into effective killing machines. Even Ukraine is using improvised armed drones on the battlefield today. This is a critical area the U.S. has fallen behind in due to a lack of demand from the DoD, export restrictions, and, some would argue, a social undercurrent that has resisted the weaponization of very low-end unmanned technologies.

The Ghost Phoenixes are part of a larger $800 million security assistance package announced by the White House on April 21 that also includes 72 more 155mm Howitzers and the same number of vehicles to tow them, 144,000 artillery rounds, field equipment, and spare parts. Together with last week’s $800 million aid package, the U.S. has pledged 90 pieces of artillery to Ukraine, along with armored vehicles, tactical drones, anti-tank guided missiles, counter-battery and air-defense radars, helicopters, and more. 

As the conflict drags on, the U.S. military is tailoring the capabilities included in each defense assistance package to what Ukrainian forces say they need in the field, Kirby said.

“This addition to the PDA packages is very much an outgrowth, a very tangible outgrowth, of … the constant conversation we’re having with the Ukrainians about what they need and this is a great example of adapting to their needs in real-time,” Kirby said. 

President Joe Biden met with Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal this morning to discuss recent developments in the war with Russia and to preview the additional $800 million in security assistance and $500 million in economic support announced later in the day. Shmyhal also met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon. 

In his speech announcing the new aid package, Biden said ongoing aid will be tailored to the fight in the Donbas, where Russian armor and artillery are at a greater advantage

“The United States and our Allies and partners are moving as fast as possible to continue to provide Ukraine the forces that they need — the weapons they need … and the equipment they need — their forces need to defend their nation,” Biden said from the White House. 

Beginning with last week’s announcement of artillery and armored vehicles, U.S. military assistance is now “responsive to Ukraine’s needs and tailored to support the intensified fighting in the Donbas region, which is a different war than in other places because … topographically it’s different. It’s flat, it’s not in the mountains, and it requires different kinds of weapons to be more effective,” Biden said.

It now apparently requires bespoke weapon systems developed in the U.S. with Ukrainian assistance in the form of the Phoenix Ghost drone.

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