Phoenix Ghosts are both drones and missiles. How does this change the fight?

A US Marine launches a deadly miniature aerial missile system during an exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., September 2, 2020. Credit: Jennessa Davey, US Marine Corps.

On April 21, the US Department of Defense announced an $800 million military assistance package to Ukraine, including more than 121 Phoenix Ghost drones. According to Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby, this previously unknown single-use weapon is designed primarily to attack targets, although it is also capable of carrying out non-lethal missions. Kirby compared the drone to the AeroVironment Switchblade, a trailing ammo. These weapons combine the maneuverability, usability, and flight time of a drone with the lethal effects of a missile.

In recent years, the number of countries producing vagrant ammunition has more than doubled, from less than 10 in 2017 to nearly two dozen today. Floating munitions are increasingly integrated into a variety of air, land and sea vehicles and are among the technologies that military planners believe could transform ground combat. Their increasing access and wide applicability challenges long-held beliefs about precision weapons.

The floating munitions category includes a diverse group of aircraft, ranging from small hand-launched and cannon-launched drones to those weighing up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds). Originally designed as an anti-radar weapon, floating munitions are now intended to attack a variety of other battlefield targets such as enemy personnel, armored vehicles, ships and even enemy drones.

The Phoenix Ghost is produced by California-based Aevex Aerospace and was designed to help the Ukrainian military take on Russia in the Donbass region, according to Kirby. The 645e The Aviation Systems Group led the effort to create the Phoenix Ghost for Ukraine, according to Defense Department officials. (The 645e is the successor to a program known as Big Safari, which helped develop the first military combat drones in the 1950s.)

Although the Department of Defense has not yet specified the dimensions or performance specifications of the Phoenix Ghost, reporters have discovered some information. The Phoenix Ghost can take off vertically and operate at night, according to Politics. It would also be able to attack medium armor targets and fly for six hours or more. If true, the Phoenix Ghost might be one of the biggest rounds around, capable of carrying enough fuel and payload to target distant armored vehicles. Of the dozens of ammunition lying around on the market today, only a handful claim a battery life of more than two hours. Still, the operational capabilities of the Phoenix Ghost remain ambiguous.

The growing importance of trailing ammunition. In addition to the Phoenix Ghosts, the United States is sending over 700 Switchblade stray munitions to Ukraine. These orders appear to be for the lightweight Switchblade 300, though they may include the Switchblade 600 – a heavier variant with a larger warhead, according to Bloomberg. The MoD has also ordered an unknown number of AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma AE surveillance drones for Ukraine. These small drones are launched by hand.

The United States often provides allied militaries with security assistance in the form of surveillance drones like the Puma. But Washington does not often offer vagrant ammunition; other than the US military and Ukraine, only the UK appears to have acquired the Switchblade.

The US military has purchased hundreds of Switchblades in recent years. The Army introduced the Switchblade 300 in 2012 and has since selected the Switchblade for its Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System program. The Marine Corps and US Special Operations Command have also ordered a limited number of Switchblades.

Although the Switchblade is primarily considered an infantry weapon, AeroVironment has recently integrated the drone into a variety of air and ground vehicles. Last year, AeroVironment launched a Switchblade 300 from a Jump 20 drone, intended to replace the military’s aging RQ-7 Shadow. Also in 2021, Kratos launched a Switchblade from an Airwolf drone, and General Dynamics unveiled a robotic tracked vehicle that can deploy 50 Switchblades.

The growing ubiquity of the Switchblade is emblematic of the Department of Defense’s growing adoption of trailing munitions. The Army’s Air-Launched Effects and Marine Corps’ Organic Precision Fires programs envision a future in which air, land and sea vehicles serve as launch platforms for drones, namely trailing ordnance. The United States Special Operations Command also has several programs to procure stray munitions for land and sea platforms.

Ammunition lying around calls for organizational change. In March, Gen. David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, touted the benefits of floating munitions. “This is the first time that ground infantry can hit targets beyond the range of their organic mortars [and] artillery with precision,” Berger said, adding that wandering ordnance gives ground forces “the power of an air wing in your hands.”

Floating munitions are among the key enabling technologies underpinning Berger’s sweeping and highly debated vision for Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps modernization plan that was unveiled in March 2020. This plan aims to transform the Marine Corps into a a more agile expeditionary force by eliminating its battle tank fleet. It would also reduce tube artillery in favor of long-range precision firepower in the form of rockets, missiles, and floating munitions.

Force Design 2030 has the potential to bring major changes to the organization of marine infantry units. Infantry company and battalion projects, which continue to be piloted, could see trailing ammunition largely supplant the long-standing 60mm mortar. Stray munitions will provide small units with “the close combat lethality enhancements long envisioned by infantry Marines,” according to the U.S. Marine Corps. During its fiscal year 2023, the Marine Corps will launch the Organic Precision Fires Light initiative to evaluate light and portable munitions.

“An investment in vagrant ammunition for our infantry companies will exponentially increase their lethality,” Maj. Gen. Julian D. Alford, chief of Marine Corps Training Command, wrote in February. Marine Corps Gazette. “These capabilities will also allow company commanders to shorten kill chains in support of maneuver elements while maintaining organic all-weather fire capabilities with ranges that extend into tens of miles. “

Floating munitions carried by infantry are only one element of the Marine Corps’ plans for weapons. The other track, known as Organic Precision Fires-Mounted, incorporates vagrant munitions into light armored vehicles, as well as future platforms like small autonomous boats. The Marines awarded Israel’s UVision Air a contract in June 2021 to supply the Hero-120, an ammunition that’s about halfway between the size of a Switchblade 300 and a Switchblade 600, for this program.

A global phenomenon. The Marine Corps and Berger have repeatedly cited the use of floating munitions in recent military conflicts as evidence of an urgent need to transform the service. During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June last year, Berger attributed Azerbaijan’s success in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 to its “precision strike regime including swarms stray munitions and deadly unmanned systems”.

The effect that drones and floating munitions have had on the conduct of military operations in recent armed conflicts remains disputed. Yet these systems provide state and non-state actors with a list of advanced capabilities. In the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan reportedly used four types of vagrant ammunition acquired from four manufacturers in two countries.

Increasingly, producers are offering families of vagrant ammunition solutions, with individual aircraft designed to meet specific operational requirements. The Polish WG Group Warmate series, for example, includes five systems, and Israel’s UVision’s Hero series features nine. Events like the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the emergence of new producers in the Middle East and Asia add to the demand for ammunition lying around. Illicit transfers of vagrant ammunition from states such as Iran to non-state actors and research and development partnerships like the one announced last year between Israel Aerospace Industries and South Korea also contribute to the sustained spread of these weapons.

The armed drone ecosystem has changed dramatically since the General Atomics Predator conducted its first missile launch just over two decades ago. Bomb-launching quadrotors and light precision ammunition have contributed to the democratization and miniaturization of the armed drone. The growing popularity of vagrant munitions represents a further acceleration of these trends, creating new challenges for those wishing to manage the proliferation of drones.

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