The expendable loitering munition is now a common aerial component of modern fighting forces as these Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) offer considerable attack value at the tactical level with relatively little risk. These UASs are essentially one-way 'kamikaze' type over-battlefield solutions designed to seek out, track, and engage enemy targets to neutralize their value. Such solutions have been in development and operational use for some time and actively deployed by global powers such as the United States, Israel, and - more recently - Ukraine in its fight against neighboring Russia.
The United States Air Force (USAF) is said to have headed a new mystery project concerning a loitering munition made specifically for ally Ukraine under the name of "Phoenix Ghost" - a tactical level UAS said to be in-the-works even before the Russian invasion of February 2022. The aircraft are manufactured by relative newcomer Aevex Aerospace (established in 2017) and government officials have announced that at least 121 of these low-cost unmanned attackers will be part of a comprehensive materials package sent to the Ukrainians to support their ongoing defense.
The UAS gives the country a notable advantage over the battlefield against unsuspecting ground targets, operating quietly and providing real-time information to its ground operator. Potential targets include up to medium-armored vehicles, critical Command and Control (C2) establishments, artillery positions, and troop encampments.
While few official details of the Phoenix Ghost exist as of this writing (April 2022), it is said to be comparable in functionality to the AeroVironment "Switchblade" loitering munition (detailed elsewhere on this site). The Switchblade exists as a highly-portable (at just 4lb) infantry-level, tube-launched attack-minded expendable drone driven by a twin-bladed propeller in "pusher" configuration. It sports spring-loaded wings which come into play after launch. All told, the all-in-one system provides front-line operators yet another tool in their arsenal.
The Phoenix Ghost is detailed with a Vertical Take-Off (VTO) capability, this proving a vital quality as it allows for its launching from nearly anywhere infantrymen find themselves. Its mission endurance window is said to be around six hours, well more than that of the competing Switchblade's 40-minute loitering time - giving this UAS excellent endurance over contested battlespaces as its searches / tracks for ground targets before committing its lethal payload against it (the entire unit is used up in the attack). Furthermore, the integrated optics set allows for day-night operation, the latter aided by an an in-built InfraRed (IR) capability.
In the ongoing conflict thus far, the Ukrainians have shown a mastery of the modern battlefield with a willingness to try anything and everything as it stands up to the second most powerful military in the world (GlobalFirepower.com, 2022). The growing focus on loitering munitions will only add to the real-time evolution of a battlespace as we know it today, a battlespace once dominated by air superiority, Electronic Warfare (EW), heavily-armored MBTs, and reliance on ranged artillery.
Some qualities appearing in the specifications section below are estimates on the part of the author.
April 2022 - The U.S. has announced that it will make 121 Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions part of its next materials aid package to Ukraine.
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Ground Attack (Bombing, Strafing)
Ability to conduct aerial bombing of ground targets by way of (but not limited to) guns, bombs, missiles, rockets, and the like.
✓Close-Air Support (CAS)
Developed to operate in close proximity to active ground elements by way of a broad array of air-to-ground ordnance and munitions options.
✓Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR), Scout
Surveil ground targets / target areas to assess environmental threat levels, enemy strength, or enemy movement.
Serving Special Forces / Special Operations elements and missions.
Aircraft inherently designed (or later developed) with an unmanned capability to cover a variety of over-battlefield roles.
Design incorporates rear-facing pusher-prop arrangement, a contrast to the more conventional puller-prop layout.
Inherent ability of airframe to take considerable damage.
EXTENDED RANGE PERFORMANCE
Capability to travel considerable distances through onboard fuel stores.
Design features ability to fly sans pilot, actions controlled onboard through programming and / or ground-based operator.
Payload supports photographic equipment providing still and / or real-time image / video results.
1 x Motor of unknown type, make, and model for propulsion.
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