Warplanes: Ukraine Goes Huge on UAVs


August 15, 2023: The Ukrainian military plans to obtain and use 200,000 UAVs in 2023. Average cost for each UAV is $2,500, with some UAV types costing less than $1,000 while a smaller number cost over $10,000 each. The majority of these UAVs are basically loitering munitions that are sent out to areas where surveillance UAVs have spotted a lot of targets, usually enemy troops and vehicles. These UAVs have video cameras and a link to operators who view the video on a tablet or via goggles containing small video screens while the operators have a form of handheld game controller to maneuver the UAV and select a target for the UAV to collide with and explode.

While many of these have already been used in a variety of effective ways, loitering munitions have one tremendous advantage over earlier forms of firepower. Compared to bullets or artillery shells, a single loitering munition is much more likely to hit a target. In wartime it takes hundreds of artillery shells to cause one casualty. For rifle and machine-gun bullets, the number of bullets fired per casualty caused can be up to 100,000. Loitering munitions are much more effective because the operator scans the terrain below looking for a target. When one is found, the loitering munition attacks and almost always kills or wounds at least one soldier. Loitering munitions can be lost to enemy action. While small targets for riflemen or machine-gunners on the ground, they can be hi by ground fire. A more effective, and increasingly common way to defeat loitering munitions is EW (Electronic Warfare), specifically electronic jamming of the munitions control signal. As is common in combat, a jammer is not always available when you need it.

In some ways, loitering munitions are not as useful as artillery or bullets. Many artillery shells and bullets are not fired at a specific target or with the intent of causing casualties. This is what happens with suppressive fire, artillery or rifle fire is directed at an area to discourage the enemy from entering or moving into position to fire at your troops. You can consider a loitering munition overhead as a form of suppressive fire on the troops below. In that respect a loitering munitions does what snipers have been doing for over a century, forcing troops to stay out of sight or the known sniper will get you. This was common during World War I, when trench warfare made snipers useful for keeping enemy troops from observing the terrain between the trenches of opponents. In the 21st century more troops had access to affordable and very effective scopes for their rifles or even machine-guns. The American marines officially recognized this as a combat specialty and designated most snipers as “scout-snipers' ' because their more useful skills involved observing as well as accurate shooting.

In armies with a lot of well-trained troops, about ten percent are designated and equipped to be snipers or sharpshooters. The latter is a soldier with a talent for accurate shooting but is not trained and equipped as a sniper. Professional soldiers in general are more likely to use individual, well aimed shots versus automatic fire, also known as spray and pray (that you hit something).

You can see how this works in Ukraine, where the Ukrainian troops are better trained in the accurate use of rifle fire. It was Ukrainian troops who frequently used commercial quadcopters equipped with grenade or small bomb carry and release mechanisms. The Ukrainian soldiers often bought commercial UAVs for this and spent hours at a time sending out their quadcopter to search for targets. The quadcopter would have to frequently land to recharge. That demonstrates another 21st century development; the proliferation of electronic devices an infantryman can and often will take with him into combat.

NATO nations learned from these Ukrainian experiences and have sent Ukraine what the Ukrainian say they need. For example, a month after the Russians invaded, the United States agreed to send Ukraine a large quantity of weapons, many of them specifically requested. One of these was called Phoenix Ghost, a system that was rapidly developed and built in the United States by Aevex Aerospace for the U.S. Air Force from specifications supplied by Ukraine. The air force revealed that the Phoenix Ghost was a project already in development before the Russians invaded. Ukrainians had already developed and built some innovative new weapons or modifications for existing ones the Americans were working on. The air force does not develop ground-based loitering munitions but does develop ones carried by aircraft. The Ukrainians made some suggestions which were included in the existing air force design and that resulted in the Phoenix Ghost, which went into production immediately.

In other words, Phoenix Ghost is a bespoke (custom made to user specifications) UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) developed and manufactured in record time. The primary new feature of this loitering munition was its longer (six hour) flight endurance. The U.S. sent Ukraine over 1,200 of these loitering munitions in the first year of the war. For a long time, all the public knew about Phoenix Ghost was that it was similar to the American Switchblade loitering munition that was also being sent to Ukraine. The input from Ukrainian engineers was essential because many of the most effective Soviet-era weapons engineers were Ukrainian. That meant Ukraine had a tradition of pragmatic and innovative weapons development that was mobilized after the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and part of Donbas. The capabilities of the Ukrainian engineers were not exactly a state secret, it just wasn’t newsworthy. Foreigners familiar with weapons development knew about the Ukrainian skills and those who visited Ukraine for whatever reason, like American and other NATO military advisors, got a closer look at what those Ukrainian engineers could do. Those skills became even more important after the invasion began and suddenly engineers and scientists in other fields began applying their skills to rapidly develop new weapons and equipment to protect Ukraine from the Russians. After the invasion began the capabilities of the Ukrainian engineers became part of the reporting on how the Ukrainians stopped and turned back the Russian attack. That enabled the Ukrainian proposal for Phoenix Ghost to be taken seriously and rapidly implemented. The Ukrainian specified COTS (Commercial Off the Shelf) components and kept in touch via the high-speed Internet links provided by Starlink. The rumors of Phoenix Ghost indicate it is an improvement over Switchblade and mainly meant to be a more effective loitering munition. The Russians eventually experienced what the Ghost could do by examining the damage and reports from their troops.

Aevex Aerospace, the firm that developed and built Phoenix Ghost is itself a recent development, founded in 2017 and specializing in projects very similar to the Phoenix Ghost. Another American firm, AeroVironment, developed the Switchblade loitering munition and similar systems. Aevex is similar to AeroVironment, which has been around since 1971 and created many innovative commercial and military UAV designs.

Switchblade is little-known to the general public but extremely popular with American troops fighting in small units, especially in remote areas. Switchblade was first revealed in 2005 and the Ukrainians are receiving at least a hundred of the Switchblade 300 plus some of the larger Switchblade 600s, which appears to be closer in weight-class and performance as Phoenix Ghost.

Switchblade 300 is a small UAV fired from its storage container. Switchblade was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Switchblade completed development later in 2009 and was initially thought useful only for special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for troop use and since then has ordered a lot more.

While Switchblade was developed for the army, the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had with this system and ordered them as well. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still used and thousands have been ordered and many of them used. There have been several upgrades

The original 2009 Switchblade was a lightweight and expendable (used only once) UAV that could also be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery-powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same controller as the larger (two kg) Raven UAV. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighed 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds).

Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the original Switchblade can stay in the air for 20-40 minutes, depending on whether or not it was armed with explosives. Switchblade can operate up to ten kilometers from the operator. The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus, Switchblade enables ground troops to get at an enemy taking cover in a hard to see location.

Technically a guided missile, the use of Switchblade as a reconnaissance tool encouraged developers to refer to it as a UAV. But because of the warhead option, and its slow speed, Switchblade also functions like a rather small cruise missile. The troops were particularly enthusiastic about the armed version because it allowed them to more quickly take out snipers or a few enemy gunmen in a compound full of civilians.

Switchblade has been so successful that the army ordered several upgrades and the updated original Switchblade was renamed Switchblade 300. The new version appeared in 2016. It is heavier (2.7 kg) with 15 minutes endurance and a 10-kilometer range. The sensor has night vision and is stabilized. The 300 can lock onto a target and track it. The 300 comes with optional accessories, like a six-pack launcher that is used as part of base defense. This was first used for base protection in 2019 and proved effective. One or more of these six packs are placed near the base perimeter and power is maintained with a solar panel. The base security commander can order a Switchblade to be launched from the six-pack and then control it in search for potential targets. Switchblade 300 is also capable of being used from a helicopter or larger UAV and controlled from the helicopter or by the operator of the larger UAV (like a Reaper).

In 2020 AeroVironment, the company that developed the unlikely, but popular, Switchblade loitering munition, introduced a third version; Switchblade 600. While the original Switchblade weighed one kilogram (2.2 pounds), the latest Switchblade is ten times heavier at 23 kg (50 pounds), can stay in the air for 40 minutes and be controlled up to 80 kilometers from the operator. Top speed is 180 kilometers an hour and more economical cruise speed is closer to 150 kilometers an hour. The heavier warhead can destroy most tanks, although some modern tank designs include protection from top attack.

Switchblade 600 was requested by the U.S. Army for longer range surveillance missions and the option to hit specific small targets, like a building or enemy position. Unlike the earlier Switchblades, the 600 uses a tablet controller with more options, including manipulating the more powerful vidcam. Video transmitted back to the operator can be saved and passed on. The operator also has a “wave off” feature in which a quick tap on the controller screen can cause the 600 to abort an attack and be available for another try. The 600 can also be programmed to carry out a mission without operator control. This means there is no control signal for enemy electronic warning systems to detect or jam. In this case when time is up the 600 self-destructs. The 600 can be carried into a remote area and used quickly. Its most likely use in the Ukraine is against the locomotives of Russian military supply and troop transport trains operating near the border or inside Ukraine.

The U.S. Navy also requested a version of Switchblade, for reconnaissance only, that could be launched from ships or submerged (at periscope depth) submarines. In this case the sub would have a communications mast on the surface to receive data from what was called the Blackwing. This version is a little heavier, at 1.8 kg (four pounds). The size of the Blackwing is designed to fit into existing navy countermeasure launchers. Without a warhead Blackwing has endurance of about an hour and uses encrypted digital communications compatible with current navy systems. When released from a submarine countermeasures launcher, the Blackwing container pops to the surface and the Blackwing is ejected into flight like the other Switchblades. The U.S. Navy has bought at least 150 Blackwings, starting in 2016. Armed versions of Blackwing are available but these have shorter endurance. For subs, reconnaissance is the most important item.

Switchblade is not a unique concept, as these “loitering munitions” have been around for decades. What Switchblade provided was a design that met the needs of combat troops, especially special operations personnel or small groups of Ukrainians seeking to halt Russian supply trucks. Since Switchblade entered service and its popularity became widely known, similar systems have appeared, trying to provide features that Switchblade lacked but the troops would appreciate.

Ukraine had already developed a loitering munition of its own, but these are not as efficient as Switchblade. The Ukrainians ended up developing and building many different loitering munitions, a process that continues.

At the same time Ukrainian neighbor and ally Poland also developed the Warmate loitering munition and sent them off to Ukraine. Warmate is a 5.3 kg (12 pound) conventional UAV that carries a 1.4 kg (three-pound warhead). Warmate has an endurance of 70 minutes and top speed of 150 kilometers an hour and can be controlled 15 kilometers from the operator. While portable, Warmate requires five minutes to assemble and needs a road or catapult device to be launched.

Ukraine developed its own loitering munition, Silent Thunder, in 2019. This is a 9.5 kg (28 pound) UAV with a variety of different 3.5 kg (7.7 pound) warheads. It takes fifteen minutes to ready Silent Thunder for use and it has a duration of 60 minutes and top speed of 150 kilometers an hour. It can be controlled up to 30 kilometers from the operator. Silent Thunder is reusable if no warhead is carried. Silent Thunder is a complex system to use and that limits its effectiveness.

In 2019 an Israeli firm introduced the Firefly, a loitering munition UAV, which is portable enough for infantry to carry and continually reuse. There is also the option to replace one of the two batteries with an explosive warhead and turn Firefly into a guided weapon. Another major advantage of Firefly is that it operates like a helicopter, not a fixed-wing aircraft. Being able to hover is a major advantage for loitering munitions used by infantry. Firefly seems to have addressed all (or most) of the user criticisms of earlier lightweight loitering munition systems.

Firefly was developed by Rafael, the same firm that developed and builds the Spike family of ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Much of the tech in Firefly was based on what is already used in Spike systems. In particular, Firefly has a guidance system that can track and attack a moving target. This can be critical for infantry using such a weapon because these targets are elusive in the first place and, without a UAV, the infantry would not have spotted dangers like snipers or moving troops at all.

Firefly is a dual rotor miniature helicopter and those dual (on top of each other) rotors make it stable in winds that would make a similar-sized fixed-wing or quad-copter UAV unusable. The .4 kg (one pound) warhead replaces the second battery to halve the normal 30 minutes of flight time. The operator uses a small tablet device that is mostly a touch screen and a Firefly controller. Firefly can be controlled up to 500 meters in a built-up (or forested) area or up to 1,500 meters in line-of-sight (nothing between Firefly and operator) mode. Firefly returns to the operator and explosives are deactivated if the control signal is lost. The operator can press an icon on the screen to get Firefly to return immediately, abort an attack or carry out a high speed (19 meters/62 feet a second) attack on a target. The target can be moving, as in a sniper changing firing positions out of sight of the operator. This is accomplished using the ability of the Firefly guidance system to remember the shape of a target and follow it. The Firefly warhead would be most often used against troublesome targets like snipers or hidden machine-guns. Even without the warhead Firefly would be able to locate such lethal adversaries and enable the infantry to avoid them. Firefly can also be launched and operated from a moving vehicle.

The big advantage Firefly has over similar loitering munitions like the 40mm Pike and GLAUS, as well as Switchblade, is reusability. Carry one Firefly and just use it as a UAV for a dozen or more times. The relative simplicity of Firefly compared to Switchblade, and to similar designs like GLAUS and Pike based on 40mm grenade shells, makes it a better system that is also cheaper when you take into account the reusability.

Russia is also using its new Zala loitering munition in Ukraine. Zala carries a two kg (4.4 pound) explosive charge. Zala is a delta shaped (1.2 meter/3.8 feet wingspan) UAV with a three kg (6.6 pound) payload that is used mainly for explosives plus a vidcam to locate the targets and dive on it. It is carried and launched from a catapult on a truck. Endurance is 30 minutes and top speed is 130 kilometers an hour. Zala has been available since 2017 and has apparently been tested in Syria.

With the recent history of loitering munitions, the appearance of Phoenix Ghost is not surprising. As the Israelis have discovered, when you are facing constant threat of attack, innovative and rapidly developed weapons are a necessity.




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