Hundreds of 'Kamikaze' Drones Have Been Sent to Ukraine, But Few Have Glimpsed Them in Action

Ukrainian military volunteer soldier holds up a drone.
A volunteer soldier with the Ukrainian military holds up a drone used to release explosives at a training area outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko)

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U.S. military aid has been key to Ukraine's effective defense against Russia's renewed invasion.

Most of those weapons have come from U.S. military stocks, but some are coming straight from the design table. The Phoenix Ghost tactical unmanned aerial system is one of them.

    The elusive Phoenix Ghost

    In late April, the Pentagon announced it would send 121 Phoenix Ghost drones to Ukraine.

    According to the Pentagon, the U.S. Air Force had been working on the Phoenix Ghost well before Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border on February 24. However, once the war started, the Pentagon decided that the drone would be well suited to the conflict in Ukraine and started adjusting its development to the Ukrainian military's particular needs.

    The limited information that the Pentagon has provided about the Phoenix Ghost suggests that it is a loitering munition designed for a single attack. Often launched by soldiers who are very close to the frontlines, loitering munitions are designed for relatively short flights that end with them crashing into their target.

    In April, John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman at the time, said the Phoenix Ghost was "akin" to the Switchblade tactical unmanned aerial system that the U.S. military started sending to Ukraine in March.

    The Switchblade-300 and -600 are loitering munitions for use against infantry and armored targets, respectively. They are "basically a one-way drone," Kirby said at the time.

    The Phoenix Ghost has optics and sensors but is "designed for tactical operations," Kirby added. "In other words, largely and but not exclusively to attack targets."

    As of September, the Pentagon has sent some 700 Phoenix Ghost drones to Ukraine. However, despite the hundreds of drones in use in Ukraine and the world's close observation of battlefields there, there have been few glimpses of the drone in action against Russian forces.

    Billions in security aid

    Thus far, the U.S. military has sent or committed to sending Ukrainian forces four strategic or tactical unmanned aerial systems, each designed for different purposes.

    Those drones are the AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma, a small UAV designed for tactical reconnaissance; the Switchblade, also made by AeroVironment; the Boeing Insitu Scan Eagle, a long-endurance, low-altitude drone; and the Phoenix Ghost, which was designed by Aevex Aerospace as part of a secretive U.S. Air Force program.

    All in all, the U.S. military has committed to provide the Ukrainian military with about 2,000 drones to launch attacks and perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

    The drones are just one part of a gargantuan U.S.-led effort to improve Ukraine's ability to defend itself following Russia's 2014 attack. Since then, the US has committed more than $17.2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine.

    A U.S. Marine prepares a Switchblade Drone for launch.
    A U.S. Marine prepares a Switchblade Drone for launch during a training exercise at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, July 7, 2021. The Switchblade Drone has been compared to the Phoenix Ghost. (Sarah Pyshe/U.S. Marine Corps)

    Since the beginning of the Biden administration in January 2021, U.S. security assistance to Ukraine has totaled more than $15.2 billion, and since Russia's latest attack began on February 24, the United States has provided some $14.5 billion in security assistance to Kyiv.

    Those weapons and the training provided by the U,S, and other countries have been pivotal to Ukraine's remarkable defense.

    Weapons like the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile, the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-radiation missile, or the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System have truly helped the Ukrainian military hold the line and steadily go on the counteroffensive.

    Concerns that providing Western-made weaponry to Ukraine could spark escalation with Russia appear to have eased, and the U.S. is supplying more sophisticated weapons to the Ukrainians, though some weaponry, like fighter jets, has not yet been added to that list.

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