The U.S. Phoenix Ghost loitering munition or kamikaze drone was completely unknown until the Biden administration announced in April they were sending 121 of them to Ukraine. No details were released apart from vague comments that it resembled the better-known AeroVironment Switchblade, and no images of the elusive weapon have ever appeared.
However, the recent announcement that 580 more Phoenix Ghosts are going to Ukraine, with steady deliveries promised from California-based makers Aevex Aerospace, is a tacit acknowledgement of how successful they have been. There was no mention of more Switchblades, which appear less popular. The success may have opened some cracks in the walls of silence, including what may be the first video of a Phoenix Ghost strike.
The video, shared on Twitter by military analyst Rob Lee, shows an attack on a Russian 82mm mortar position. Lee notes that the video is tagged as being a Phoenix Ghost strike. The video, apparently shot from an accompanying drone, first shows the dug-in mortar crew, then the loitering munition flying over and diving down before detonating in a vivid fireball. Afterwards one survivor is seen fleeing from the area. The strike has been geolocated in the Kherson region.
The resolution is not sufficient to identify the loitering munition, or even determine its configuration. Two things do stand out though. One is just how slow it is: during the cruise portion it travels at roughly 10 times its own length each second, in the dive phase it drops at roughly 15 of its own lengths per second.
By comparison, the small Switchblade 300 cruises at around 60 mph, which is 50 munition-lengths per second, and dives about 50% faster. The larger Switchblade 600 cruises at about 30 lengths per second. The polish Warmate loitering munition, also used by Ukraine, is somewhat slower and cruises at 50 mph which is 20 lengths per second, and dives at 30 lengths per second. The munition in the video appears significantly slower than any of these.
The other feature of note is the explosion, which is much larger than that seen in previous Switchblade 300 strikes. Phoenix Ghost is said to have a warhead capable of taking out medium armor only, so it is bigger than the Switchblade 300 but smaller than the 600s which can destroy heavy tanks; Warmate also has an intermediate-sized warhead. Frame-by-frame inspection suggests the weapon detonates before impact, creating an airburst which is more effective against personnel. This might indicate a U.S.-made weapon with an advanced height-of-burst sensor,
However, there are other candidates. The U.K. is now also supplying “hundreds of loitering aerial munitions” — type unknown — according to the U.K. defence minister . In July a video revealed a new catapult-launched medium-sized Ukrainian-made loitering munition with a 2.5 kilo warhead which may now be operational.. A number of other Ukrainian developers were known to be working on loitering munitions before the war, and one or more of these which may also have entered service.
In conclusion, while the video may genuinely show a Phoenix Ghost strike, it is impossible to confirm at this time.
More details pf Phoenix Ghost emerged in an interview with Oleksii Arestovysch, Adviser to the Ukrainian President’s Office , in the Ukrainian industry site Defence Express. Arestovysch confirmed the details previously revealed by Politico, that it has an impressive six-hour loiter time and infra-red guidance for night attacks. But he also made the surprising comment that Phoenix Ghost is ‘backpackable.’ The Switchblade 600 , which only has a forty-minute loiter time, is transported in two coffin-sized cases (each 71″ x 18″ x 17″) suggesting that Phoenix Ghost is very much smaller, more like the Switchblade 300 which fits in a rucksack. If correct, this is remarkable for such a long-endurance system with a powerful warhead.
Secondly, Arestovysch commented that “580 of such units equals about 350 destroyed targets in the close rear.”
580 weapons scoring 350 kills is a ate of almost exactly 60%, so this is likely the figure that Arestovysch has been given. It suggests that the 121 Phoenix ghosts supplied so far have destroyed 70 or more targets – none of which has been seen – which, if true, is impressive. Ukraine has knocked out around 2000 Russian armored vehicles in total according to Oryx (and captured many more) so Phoenix Ghost may be scoring a significant fraction of the current kills.
While high, the claim is consistent with the Pentagon’s own site which quotes an unnamed senior official as saying that : “The Ukrainians have been making excellent use of the Phoenix Ghost system.”
“In the close rear” suggests that Phoenix Ghost is not a long-range system in spite of its long flight time, but can still hit Russian vehicles behind the front lines. Switchblade 600 had a range of 40km, the 300 just 10 km.
The ‘excellent use’ of Phoenix Ghost has so far been matched with excellent secrecy, which was likely a condition of the U.S. supplying the weapons. In the coming weeks we will see more strikes by Switchblades, Warmates, British loitering munitions and locally-made weapons of all sizes right down to those improvised from racing drones. And while we may not see the Phoenix Ghosts, they will be there in the background taking down Russian invaders with stealthy efficiency.