The San Diego Union-Tribune
April 30, 2022
SAN DIEGO — The Ukrainian military will soon begin tracking and attacking Russian forces with a secret new “suicide drone” produced by Aevex Aerospace, a little-known Solana Beach, California, company that has considerable experience with unmanned aerial systems.
The Biden administration is sending 121 of the company’s Phoenix Ghost drones to Ukraine, where they are expected to get heavy use in the eastern part of the country. Russian forces have regrouped there and are somewhat exposed in flat, open territory similar to California’s Central Valley.
Defense analysts say it appears the Phoenix Ghost will loiter in the sky, quietly looking for targets. Once it finds one, the drone goes into a dive and rams the object, setting off its explosive warhead. Analysts speculate that it is a comparatively small weapon that could be hard to see against the cloud cover that shrouds much of Ukraine in late April and in May.
The vehicle’s specific size, shape, payloads and capabilities haven’t been disclosed. Nor has any one explained the origin of the drone’s name.
The Pentagon did disclose that it began developing the vehicle before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Such weapons can be developed quickly because some countries, notably the U.S., have deep experience with drone technology, and many of these weapons can use off-the-shelf equipment.
“We can’t talk about details,” said Brian Raduenz, the (Ret.) Air Force Lt. Colonel who serves as chief executive officer of Aevex Aerospace. “I have to refer you to the remarks that John Kirby made about this.”
Kirby, chief spokesman for the Pentagon, told reporters on April 21, “This unmanned aerial system is designed for tactical operations. In other words, largely, but not exclusively, to attack targets. It can also be used to give you a site picture of what it is seeing, of course. But it’s principal focus is attack.
“Its purpose is akin to that of the Switchblade, which we have been talking about in the past, which is basically a one-way drone and attack drone. And that’s essentially what this is designed to do.”
Switchblade is a quiet, light-weight, all-electric drone made by AeroVironment, a company based in Arlington, Virginia. Popular Mechanics describes it as a “flying camera robot with an explosive inside that will help find or attack nearby enemies, not far-away ones.”
The 5.5-pound 300 version of Switchblade can be carried in a soldier’s backpack and quickly launched — making it highly useful for Ukrainian soldiers who are trying to maneuver around Russian troops and vehicles. The larger 600 version of Switchblade is being used to destroy Russian tanks and armored vehicles, many which litter roads in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
The Biden administration says it has provided at least 1,000 Switchblades to Ukraine. The country also is using the much larger Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, which pack laser-guided missiles.
Although Raduenz declined to discuss Phoenix Ghost in detail, it appears that Aevex Aerospace has considerable technical expertise. It works with the San Diego County division of General Atomics, the maker of some famous unmanned — and much larger — aerial vehicles as the Predator and Reaper drones.
Aevex has about 600 workers, some of whom deploy overseas to help the company’s military and commercial customers.