Frontline Drones Are Changing Modern Warfare | Knowledge and the environment | DW

According to the Pentagon, the United States has developed a new type of UAV that meets the requirements of the Ukrainian army, and now it needs further modification: “Phoenix Ghost” is the name of the unmanned aerial vehicle. “In discussions with the Ukrainians about their needs, we felt that this particular system would be very well suited to their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

The development of the drone had already begun before the outbreak of the Ukraine war. Now they want to push this even further to better suit Ukrainian requirements. More than 120 of these drones will be delivered to Ukraine as part of a new US government military aid package worth $800 million. Since the announcement, the specifications of the Phoenix Ghost have been discussed: What does it look like? How is it different from previous weapon systems?

Not much is known yet. There are no pictures. The Phoenix Ghost was developed by the American arms company Aevex Aerospace in cooperation with the US Air Force, which is also discreet about the details. Pentagon spokesman Kirby said minimal training is required to operate the drone.

The new drone is similar to the so-called Switchblade drones from the American manufacturer AeroVironment. This, however, has been known for a long time. It was developed for use by US Special Forces in Afghanistan. In 2012, the US Army armed its forces with it.

Kamikaze Drone “Switch Blade”

The Switchblade Backpack drone belongs to the “Loitering Munition” or “Loitering Weapon” category, which means something like “ammunition or loitering weapon”.

“It’s kind of a mix between a missile and a drone,” Arthur Holland Michel, an author and senior fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs in Barcelona, ​​told DW.

Loitering munitions or weapons are remote-controlled missiles that are initially launched with no identified target, then rotate over the target area for a long time until the target is identified by the operator on the ground via the data link and then attacked. Depending on the model, emerging targets can also be detected and categorized using their sensors and then countered with an independently initiated attack.

The terms ammo loitering or weapon lounging are not particularly common. The class of weapons became known only in the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, when Azerbaijan used large quantities of these weapons.

There are different versions of Switchblade. The smaller model weighs 2.5 kg, has a range of 10 km and can stay in the air for 15 minutes. The largest variant weighs almost 15 kg and has a range of 40 km or can fly for 40 minutes.

Your advantage: “Unlike a large drone, you don’t need an airport or a lot of infrastructure to get it started,” says Michel. “And unlike the missile, you have time to identify the target, get a picture of the situation, and then launch the drone missile at the target manually or with the help of target recognition. In this way, the capabilities of both weapons are combined systems.”

Switchblade 300 weighs 2.5kg and can keep working for about 15 minutes

Switchblade drones are also known as kamikaze drones because they self-destruct upon attack.

Edit: Ghost of the Phoenix

Kirby said the Phoenix Ghost drones have similar but not exactly the same capabilities.

David Deptula, retired lieutenant colonel, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Space Studies and board member of Aevex Aerospace, provided POLITICO with some additional information — which has yet to be confirmed.

Accordingly, the Phoenix Ghost is also a disposable drone, but it can stay in the air for much longer at six hours. It also shoots vertically, so it saves a lot of space, and thanks to its infrared sensors, it can also work at night. Deptola said the drone is effective against “medium-armored ground targets”.

Flag carrier “Bayraktar TB2”

The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat reconnaissance aircraft belongs to the class of “larger UAVs” that Michel addressed. It was also published in the Ukraine War. The Turkish phrase “bayraktar” means “flag bearer” in German. The drone was developed in 2014 by Baykar Corporation.

Bayraktar TB2 has a length of 6.50 meters, a wingspan of 12 meters and an empty weight of 420 kilograms.

Bayraktar TB2 combat and reconnaissance drone

Drone for combat and reconnaissance Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicle. Bayraktar means “flag bearer” in English.

The fully autonomous drone can remain in the air for 24 hours without interruption, reach a flight altitude of 7,300 meters and a maximum speed of about 220 kilometers per hour. In standalone mode, it can take off without ground control from a coordinator, fly to a programmed target, explore, return, and land on its own. Its maximum range is 150 km.

“Victor”: German high-tech for Ukraine

The Ukrainian armed forces can now also use a reconnaissance drone from the Bavarian company Quantum Systems for espionage missions. “Our first drones are already in Ukraine,” company president Florian Seibel told the German Liberation Network (RND). Other deliveries are planned. The London newspaper “The Times” had already reported this.

It took only five days from the first contact until the signing of the contract – shortly thereafter, three Ukrainian fighters sent a selfie to Bavaria with a drone.

The drone is called “Vector” and its cost is about 180 thousand euros. Ukrainian millionaires paid the purchase out of their own pocket as a “donation to the Dnipro Regional Defense Command,” according to the NDA article. The Ukrainian consul in Munich established the relationship between the fighters and the company in Bavaria.

However, the German drone is not a weapon in the strict sense of the word. You can’t drop bombs, and that’s not the point. However, with the appropriate digital linkage, it can throw as part of a weapon system, according to the RND.

However, Vector is especially popular because it is very technologically advanced in flight and video transmission. The Ukrainians want to use the drone to optimally direct their artillery, for example on approaching Russian tanks.

Vector is the perfect solution to this requirement: it can be set up without tools, doesn’t need a runway despite its three-meter wingspan, and even takes off vertically – like the Phoenix Ghost.

UAV vector quantum system

Vector drone from Quantum Systems is designed for surveillance and reconnaissance work

Vector provides real-time HD video of more than 15 kilometers in length and stays in the air for up to two hours.

Meanwhile, US special units have also ordered Vector drones worth seven million euros, and the German Army has ordered eight, the company’s president Seibel told RND.

Ukraine: an international fleet of drones

Japan has also delivered drones to Ukraine, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, drones, masks and protective suits are being delivered at Ukraine’s request.

But Ukrainian soldiers also use domestic drones. Leleka-100 is the most common. The aircraft, which weighs about five kilograms, is produced by Deviro Corporation, headquartered in Dnipro, in central Ukraine. “Leleka” means stork in Ukrainian.

Meanwhile, Russia appears less dependent on threats. Orlan-10 (eng. Adler-10) will be used here in particular – a small unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, manufactured at the Special Technology Center in St. Petersburg. With a wingspan of 3.10 meters, it flies up to 100 kilometers and can also be used for accurate artillery fire. The reconnaissance system is rather simple: aerial photography cameras from the Canon EOS-D series as well as thermal imaging cameras and video cameras.

Moral horror scenario

But what should not be overlooked in all the leaps of development are the challenges and risks posed by the increasing autonomy of weapons systems, as drone expert Arthur Holland Michel points out in a tweet on Twitter. for example:

Do users have sufficient situational awareness to make a decision about the use of force? Do the weapons give the user enough control to be careful when attacking? Are guns vulnerable to penetration or tampering that could lead to accidents and unintended damage? If the system causes unintended harm, are there clear channels through which people can be held accountable for that harm? How to exclude risks and safety standards? How can civilians be protected?

“With each additional autonomous function being added to such weapons, these concerns multiply,” Michael says. “As such, I encourage people to focus on the individual robotic functions of these systems and the specific risks that could arise if those functions fail.”

The development of autonomous or remotely controlled weapon systems is progressing rapidly, but concerns remain. Drone wars are a moral horror scenario.

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