US sends Phoenix Ghost drones and howitzers to Ukraine to fight Russia

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President Biden announced $800 million in additional military aid to Ukraine on Thursday, with the first part arriving over the weekend. The package, which represents a sharp increase in artillery deliveries, includes weapons that meet Ukraine’s specific needs on the battlefield, which is moving to the Donbass region in the east.

The latest pack includes 72 155mm howitzers and the tactical vehicles to tow them, as well as 144,000 artillery shells. That’s a significant increase from the 18 howitzers in another shipment also announced in April, and enough to equip five battalions, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

According to some expert estimates, the 144,000 rounds could last up to four weeks. “The howitzers are really pieces of equipment designed to help the Ukrainians hold the line against the next Russian aggressions,” said Samir Puri, a Singapore-based military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The package also includes more than 120 Phoenix Ghost tactical unmanned aerial systems – drones that the US Air Force developed “in response, specifically, to Ukrainian requirements”, according to Kirby. Later in the day, he said the drones had in fact been “developed for a set of requirements that correspond very closely” to the Ukrainians’ needs for operations in the Donbass.

“His main focus is attack,” he said.

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The Phoenix Ghosts, designed by Aevex Aerospace, are similar to Switchblade drones, small precise weapons packed with explosives capable of hitting targets in a “kamikaze” manner. The Phoenix Ghost system will require minimal training for experienced drone operators, Kirby said. Washington announced in March that it would send 100 Switchblades to kyiv.

Ukraine prevented the Kremlin from winning a major prize – kyiv, the capital – by adopting guerrilla tactics in the forests of the north and west of the country. But the open, flat lands of the East are much better suited to Russia’s ability to muster large formations of tanks and armored vehicles.

The warmer weather in the coming weeks will also provide Kremlin armored formations with greater freedom of movement. On Thursday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said forces from Moscow were advancing towards Kramatorsk, a town in eastern Ukraine that is a constant target of Russian missile and rocket fire.

The Phoenix Ghosts could meet some of those challenges by allowing Ukraine to hit advancing Russian columns from afar, Puri said. Retreating Ukrainian forces “can stay in the fight somewhat at a slight distance…and still [present] a serious threat.

Washington Post Pentagon and National Security reporter Karoun Demirjian explains the difficulties in deciding which weapons to send to Ukraine. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

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kyiv has found success with other drones. The Turkish-Ukrainian-made Bayraktar TB2, the size of a small plane and equipped with laser-guided missiles, wreaked havoc on Russian tanks and trucks. Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously protested to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, against the transfer of these weapons to Ukraine.

The Phoenix Ghost is a tactical weapon designed to “deal with a punch” and would be useful against a number of targets, said a US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon.

These weapons are also light and portable, making them easy to ship from Ukraine’s NATO and western neighbors to the eastern front line, Puri said. By contrast, delivering howitzers presents logistical challenges and a greater risk of a Russian ban, he added.

Demirjian reported from Washington and Cheng from Seoul. Liz Sly and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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