This week saw the Biden administration announce over a billion dollars worth of security and economic assistance for Ukraine. The military package “includes heavy artillery weapons, dozens of howitzers, and 144,000 rounds of ammunition to go with those howitzers,” the President announced Thursday, aimed at bolstering the Ukrainian defense against the ongoing Russian invasion.
However, it was a follow-up statement from the Pentagon that’s now hitting the headlines. Along with more well-known weapons and tactical equipment, the US is set to send Ukraine something never seen before: 121 so-called “Phoenix Ghost” drones.
But what are these mysteriously named weapons? What makes them so special? And is it true that they were designed specially for the Ukrainian defense?
The Phoenix Ghost drone is “a different type of aircraft, it’s a one-way aircraft that is effective against medium armored ground targets,” retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula told Politico. That’s likely what’s known as a loitering munition, or sometimes “kamikaze drones” – a new type of weapon, able to precisely track and identify targets over long ranges, ideal for asymmetric conflicts like the one currently raging in Ukraine.
Deptula is a board member of the defense company Aevex Aerospace, which developed the drone shortly before the Russian invasion. He described the drone as able to take off vertically, fly for over six hours while searching for or tracking a target, and operate at night using infrared sensors.
It can be used with minimal training, and is close in design to the Switchblade drones which have already been delivered to Ukraine, he said – though Phoenix Ghost has a much longer loitering capability than the Switchblade, which can only fly for under an hour.
Initial reports about the Phoenix Ghost followed a senior defense official’s statement that it had been “rapidly developed by the Air Force in response, specifically, to Ukrainian requirements,” but this was later walked back by Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.
“It was developed for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians need right now in Donbas,” Kirby stated.
“It can also be used to give you a sight picture of what it’s seeing, of course. But its principal focus is attack,” he added.
Other than that, we don’t yet have many details on the Phoenix Ghost. It’s a “one way drone […] designed to give a punch,” the senior defense official told Breaking Defense, but because of the classified status of much of the information, “I’m just not going to be able to get into more detail about those capabilities,” they said.
Similarly, the Pentagon, Air Force, and Aevex themselves have all declined to comment to the press – leaving much yet to be seen. And as for the name – well, even the senior defense official has no idea where that came from.