On April 21, the US Defense Department announced an $800 million military assistance package to Ukraine that included over 121 Phoenix Ghost drones. This previously unknown, one-time-use weapon is designed primarily to attack targets, though it is also capable of conducting non-lethal missions, according to John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson. Kirby likened the drone to the AeroVironment Switchblade—a loitering munition. Such weapons combine the maneuverability, usability, and flight time of a drone with the lethal effects of a missile.
In recent years, the number of countries producing loitering munitions has more than doubled from fewer than 10 in 2017 to nearly two dozen today. Loitering munitions are increasingly integrated into a variety of air, ground, and sea vehicles and are among the technologies that military planners believe could transform ground combat. Their growing access and wide applicability present challenges to longstanding beliefs about precision weapons.
The category of loitering munitions includes a diverse group of aircraft, ranging from small gun- and hand-launched drones to those weighing as much as 200 kilograms (440 pounds). Initially conceived as an anti-radar weapon, loitering munitions are today meant to attack a variety of other battlefield targets such as enemy personnel, armored vehicles, ships, and even adversary drones.
The Phoenix Ghost is produced by the California-based Aevex Aerospace and was designed to help the Ukrainian military confront Russia in the Donbas region, according to Kirby. The 645th Aeronautical Systems Group led the effort to create the Phoenix Ghost for Ukraine, according to Defense Department officials. (The 645th is the successor to a program known as Big Safari, which contributed to the development of first military combat drones in the 1950s.)
Though the Defense Department has not yet elaborated on the Phoenix Ghost’s dimensions or performance specifications, journalists have uncovered some information. The Phoenix Ghost can take off vertically and operate at night, according to Politico. It is also reportedly capable of attacking medium-armored targets and flying for six hours or more. If true, the Phoenix Ghost may be among the largest loitering munitions, one able to carry enough fuel and payload to target far-away armored vehicles. Of the dozens of loitering munitions on the market today, only a handful claim an endurance of more than two hours. Still, the Phoenix Ghost’s operational capabilities remain ambiguous.
The growing prominence of loitering munitions. In addition to the Phoenix Ghosts, the United States is sending more than 700 Switchblade loitering munitions to Ukraine. These orders appear to be for the lightweight Switchblade 300, though they may include the Switchblade 600—a heavier variant with a larger warhead, according to Bloomberg. The Defense Department has also ordered an unknown number of AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma AE surveillance drones for Ukraine. These small drones are launched by hand.
The United States often provides allied militaries with security assistance in the form of surveillance drones like the Puma. But Washington does not often offer loitering munitions; other than the US military and Ukraine, only the United Kingdom appears to have acquired the Switchblade.
The US military has purchased hundreds of Switchblades in recent years. The Army introduced the Switchblade 300 in 2012 and has since selected the Switchblade for its Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System program. The Marine Corps and US Special Operations Command have also ordered a limited number of Switchblades.
Although the Switchblade is predominantly viewed as an infantry weapon, AeroVironment has lately integrated the drone into a variety of air and ground vehicles. Last year, AeroVironment launched a Switchblade 300 from a Jump 20 drone, which is intended to replace the Army’s aging RQ-7 Shadow. Also in 2021, Kratos launched a Switchblade from an Airwolf drone, and General Dynamics unveiled a tracked robotic vehicle that can deploy 50 Switchblades.
The Switchblade’s increasing ubiquity is emblematic of the Defense Department’s widening embrace of loitering munitions. The Army’s Air-Launched Effects and Marine Corps’ Organic Precision Fires programs envision a future in which air, ground, and sea vehicles will serve as launch platforms for drones, namely loitering munitions. The US Special Operations Command also has several programs aimed at procuring loitering munitions for ground and maritime platforms.
Loitering munitions beckon organizational change. In March, Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, touted the advantages of loitering munitions. “This is the first time the infantry on the ground can strike targets beyond the range of their organic mortars [and] artillery with precision,” Berger said, adding that loitering munitions offer ground forces the “power of an air wing in your hands.”
Loitering munitions are among the core enabling technologies underpinning Berger’s sweeping, much debated vision for Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps’ modernization plan that was unveiled in March 2020. This plan aims to transform the Marine Corps into a more agile, expeditionary force by eliminating its fleet of battle tanks. It would also reduce tube artillery in favor of long-range precision firepower in the form of rockets, missiles, and loitering munitions.
Force Design 2030 has the potential to usher in major changes to the organization of Marine infantry units. The plans for infantry companies and battalions, which continue to undergo experimentation, could see loitering munitions largely supplant the longstanding 60-millimeter mortar. Loitering munitions will provide small units with the “the close-combat lethality enhancements long-envisioned by infantry Marines,” according to the US Marine Corps. In its 2023 fiscal year, the Marine Corps will initiate the Organic Precision Fires Light initiative to evaluate lightweight, portable loitering munitions.
“An investment in loitering munitions for our infantry companies will exponentially increase their lethality,” Maj. Gen. Julian D. Alford, head of Marine Corps Training Command, wrote in February’s Marine Corps Gazette. “These capabilities will also enable the company commanders to shorten kill chains in support of the maneuver elements while, importantly, maintaining all-weather organic fires capabilities with ranges that extend dozens of miles.”
Infantry-carried loitering munitions are but one element of the Marine Corps’ plans for the weapons. The other track, known as Organic Precision Fires-Mounted, integrates loitering munitions into light armored vehicles, as well as future platforms like small autonomous boats. The Marines awarded Israel’s UVision Air a contract in June 2021 to supply the Hero-120, a loitering munition roughly midway between the size of a Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600, for this program.
A global phenomenon. The Marine Corps and Berger have repeatedly cited the use of loitering munitions in recent military conflicts as evidence of an urgent need to transform the service. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June of last year, Berger attributed Azerbaijan’s success in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 to its “precision strike regime to include swarms of loitering munitions and lethal unmanned systems.”
The effect that drones and loitering munitions have had on the conduct of military operations in recent armed conflicts remains contested. Still, these systems are providing state and non-state actors with a slate of advanced capabilities. In the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan is believed to have used four types of loitering munitions acquired from four manufacturers in two countries.
Increasingly, producers are offering families of loitering munition solutions, with individual aircraft designed to meet specific operating requirements. Poland’s WG Group Warmate series, for example, includes five systems, and Israel’s UVision’s Hero series features nine. Events like the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbijian and the emergence of new producers in the Middle East and Asia are adding to the demand for loitering munitions. Illicit transfers of loitering munitions from states such as Iran to non-state actors and research and development partnerships like that announced last year between Israel Aerospace Industries and South Korea are also contributing to the sustained spread of these weapons.
The ecosystem of armed drones has changed radically since the General Atomics Predator conducted its first missile launch just over two decades ago. Bomblet-dropping quadrotors and lightweight precision munitions have contributed to the democratization and miniaturization of the armed drone. The emerging popularity of loitering munitions represents a further acceleration of these trends, creating new challenges for those who wish to manage drone proliferation.
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