The US Is Sending Ukraine a New Type of ‘Suicide’ Drone

The U.S. Air Force has spun up a brand new suicide drone for use by Ukraine in its war with Russia called the “Phoenix Ghost.” The White House announced the new drone as part of an $800 million aid package to Ukraine on April 21. 

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby namechecked the drone during a press conference about the aid package. According to Kiryb, the package will include “72 155mm howitzers and 144,000 rounds, 72 tactical vehicles which are designed to tow the howitzers, more than 120 Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems.”

Pressed by journalists in the room, Kirby said that the Phoenix Ghost had been in development before the invasion. “The Air Force was working this,” he said. “And in discussions with the Ukrainians, again, about their requirements, we believed that this particular system would very nicely suit their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine…we will continue to move that development in ways that are attuned to Ukrainian requirements for unmanned aerial systems of a tactical nature in eastern Ukraine.”

He refused to provide more details. “I would just tell you that this unmanned aerial system is designed for tactical operations,” he said. “In other words, largely and but not exclusively to attack targets. It, like almost all unmanned aerial systems, of course, has optics. So it can also be used to give you a sight picture of what it’s seeing, of course. But its principal focus is attack.”

Kirby also compared it to another drone. “Its purpose is akin to that of the Switchblade, which we have been talking about in the past, which is basically a one-way drone and attack drone,” he said. “And that’s essentially what this is designed to do.”

If its principal focus is attack, then the Phoenix Ghost is likely a so-called suicide drone—a small and cheap, often tube-launched, drone that carries an explosive payload. They’re meant to fly directly into a target and detonate on impact. This kind of drone is nothing new. The Islamic State made extensive use of commercial drones carrying improvised explosive devices and America has been using the similar Switchblade drone since 2011.

The U.S. has already sent 400 Switchblade drones to Ukraine. The Switchblade drone comes in two sizes: a 5.5 model that fits in a backpack or launcher tube and a beefier 33 pound model. The cheap drones are launched from a tube, similar to a mortar launcher, fly into the air and provide sight to a pilot who then directs the drone at a target on the battlefield.

Cheaper than conventional missiles, such drones are easy and cheap to produce and effective at blowing up more expensive targets. The Switchblade, and presumably the Phoenix Ghost, are loitering munitions—a classification of weapon that is capable of waiting near a target before striking. 

Details are light on the Phoenix Ghost. It was created by Aevex Aerospace and the U.S. Air Force, neither of which responded to Motherboard’s request for comment. Aevex Aerospace has told multiple other outlets it would not talk about the drone.

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