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Death from the sky: How US Phoenixes to change rules of battle for Donbas

The Pentagon continues to increase the supplies of drones to Ukraine and train the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) to work with them. This refers, at the moment, to Switchblade-600 and Phoenix Ghost, or Phoenixes, specially modernized for the battle for Donbas and capable of hitting armored vehicles with the infantry’s hands.

Reapers’ flaws in Afghanistan

A completely logical choice — trying to constrict the enemy with an overwhelming advantage in the air with a swarm of loitering munition, which does not have the goal of returning to the base even in the options.

This technology was first worked out in Afghanistan, when NATO troops were under rapid assaults and guided bomb attacks.

The insurgents, local resistance, retreated faster than the American operators of the Reapers, or the MQ-9 Reaper (modular reconnaissance and strike UAV), reacted, and in the web of duvals (a fence or wall of a house in Central Asia), adobe huts, and passes, it was problematic to find a target.

The troops needed a drone launched from battle formations that reacted to an immediate threat — by analogy with a 60-mm mortar, bypassing higher headquarters and the means of a senior commander.

Photo: US Marines

Photo: US Marines

Switchblade-300 in Afghanistan

The answer to the request of the US military in Afghanistan was the Switchblade. The gas generator threw out a loitering munition that opened its wings and moved to the target.

The camera transmitted the image to the tablet that was synchronized with other tactical drones, such as the Ravens. With a few taps, it was possible to reassign the target while the craft was in the air, or at the last moment to refuse to strike.

The radius or power of the warhead were not very critical here — the targets were the crews of mortars, machine guns, and grenade launchers. But the possibility to carry a tube through the mountains and quickly launch it from your hand, often under fire, was critical.

Therefore, the Switchblade-300 is, in fact, pocket artillery covering a 10-kilometer zone. Detonation of a small head equipped with damage agents disables only non-armored vehicles or non-covered infantry.

4,000 "blades" and several hundred of the 1,500 control units produced were used in Afghanistan — a wealth of experience was gained.

Photo: US Marines

Photo: US Marines

Ukraine as testing ground for new drones

The new version of the switchblade, the Switchblade-600, was originally designed as a killer of armored targets.

Its "head" is Javelin ATGM ammunition, and an impressive range of 40 km gives time to choose a priority target between armored vehicles, command and control vehicles, or air defense.

But it was not used on the battlefield, so Ukraine has become an excellent testing ground to test the very concept of an anti-tank UAV.

At the beginning of April 2022, the first team of 20 Ukrainian fighters attended the Switchblade kamikaze UAV control course.

Right now, another 20 are being trained on the Phoenix Ghost — crafts created for the needs of Ukraine and modified to match the realities of the battle for Donbas. The servicemen are trained not only as operators, but also as instructors that train Ukrainian cadets alread

Over 700 Switchblades and 120 Phoenix Ghosts are already in Ukraine. With them, Kyiv will get a huge asymmetric advantage — the possibility to suppress the enemy both in contact combat and at a distance of a mortar or artillery salvo from light infantry battle formations, helicopter ramps, and SUV bodies.

Photo: US Marines

Photo: US Marines

Mystery of special purpose Phoenixes

The only thing is that the United States continues to keep secrets about Phoenix Ghost, limiting itself to very general data. The craft can stay in the air for up to 6 hours, be used in any weather and time of day due to infrared sensors, and its niche are targets with medium armor.

The craft improvements — apparently, this is the same concept of the Switchblade-600, remain a secret.

Of course, these are both the battery power and the engine (the previous version could stay in the air for up to 40 minutes), and the "head".

Perhaps this is the same fragmented new munition that provides both good damage to manpower due to the destruction of the hull and piercing of armored vehicles due to the tungsten liner.

The modernization was provided by Aevex Aerospace, a highly privaye military company specializing in geospatial systems and "special purpose" UAVs.

Photo: Aevex Aerospace

Photo: Aevex Aerospace

Substitution for Ravens: What targets to become accessible

Ukraine has already got drones from the Switchblade manufacturer— RQ-11 Raven. And these Ravens were quite vulnerable to Russian electronic warfare troops.

Probably, this was not necessary for the realities of Afghanistan, and the modernization of the craft lies precisely there: in resistance to interference and interception of control, in the security of the digital channel, in the simultaneous presence of several craft in the air without signal conflicts.

Be that as it may, sending the Phoenix Ghost in the "artillery package" of assistance from the United States and the clarification about "medium targets" with a six-hour flight radius clearly outlines the tasks of the new loitering munition, namely the destruction of:

  • SPG (self-propelled guns);
  • vehicles of the commander of the battery and division;
  • various counter-battery radars;
  • communications signal nodes.

That is, it will be possible to reach everything that will be inaccessible by distance or armor for earlier models. In the zone where the enemy's electronic warfare equipment is quite active — 30-40 km.

This is another weapon that will change the rules of the game — the threat in the counter-battery fight will be posed not only by rocket artillery, but by infantry capable of sending munition within 10 minutes after opening fire on it.


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