The Royal Artillery of the British Army were the sole operators of the GEC/Marconi/ BAe Systems Phoenix battlefield UAV and given the long and troubled development of the system, its hardly surprising that no other country showed any interest in purchasing and operating Phoenix.

The requirement for a battlefield UAV to support the British Army and integrate with the Battlefield Artillery Target Engagement System (BATES), was originally outlined in the early 1980's with a planned in service date of 1989 and the first example actually flew in 1986. However, all kinds of problems were encountered and in 1995, with no sign that Phoenix would actually work as advertised, a complete review of the project was undertaken and alternative systems considered. As is so often the case with a British defence procurement contract let to a British company that fails to deliver, the decision was made to renegotiate the contract and allow the in service date to slip yet again to Dec 1998. Phoenix eventually managed to stagger into service in 1999 and saw limited service in Kosovo that year; eventually a total of 198 were delivered, many were lost in accidents and a number of others had to be cannibalised for spares.

Constructed mainly of Kevlar, glass fibre, carbon reinforced plastics and Nomex honeycomb, Phoenix was powered by a 25hp two-stroke flat twin 'tractor' engine. Phoenix had a wingspan of 18 ft, could carry a payload of 110 lbs, cruised at around 70 kts and had a maximum ceiling of 8,000 ft. The radius of action was around 38 nms from the ground station and endurance 5 hrs.

Phoenix launch truck

Phoenix was launched by a pneumatic / hydraulic catapult from the back of a specially designed Army truck, which was usually ready to launch within an hour of reaching the launch site; unfortunately the launch truck was too large to fit into the back of a C-130 or be underslung from a helicopter, making its deployment a slow process and hardly compatible with the expeditionary forces concept for the Army. One dedicated groundstation could control two Phoenix UAV's which were guided by a programmed GPS system or a backup radio system. However, all Phoenix carried was a infrared imaging system and the means to datalink the images - crucially it did not carry a laser designator. Phoenix was recovered by parachute, landing on its back with the impact being taken by a crushable hump.


The final design for the Phoenix appears to be a classic example of a British system designed by committee with different agendas. Rather than a neat design with the sensors contained within the fuselage, the sensor payload, an infra-red imager, was slung in a pod underneath the fuselage. The end result was a UAV that looked like the losing entry, by a bunch of failed YTS graduates, in a 'design your own Heath-Robinson UAV competition' using components found in the nearest scrapyard. The old adage - if it looks right, it probably is right, certainly applies to Phoenix, which looks wrong and usually didn't work. Because of all the delays in getting this relatively unsophisticated UAV into service, the British Army finally ended up accepting Phoenix into service when it was already effectively obsolete, despite each Phoenix eventually costing a disgraceful 1.5M each.

The Bugger-Off about to do just that

Unsurprisingly, Phoenix suffered a high attrition rate in active service. A total of 23 were lost in Gulf War II, between Mar-Apr 03, where it was nicknamed the 'Bugger-Off' by British troops because they generally never returned from a sortie - the residents of Basra are welcome to them. It is little short of shameful that a country like Britain, with it's industrial rescources and proud record of innovation, can produce a heap of rubbish like Phoenix and 'fob it off' on the military. I'm sure that every serviceman who had to struggle to get Phoenix to work successfully, must have wished the UK had simply done what the US Navy did and build an Israeli UAV under licence.

Thankfully, the replacement for Phoenix, known as Watchkeeper, is finally about to enter service - the contract should have been placed in 2004, with entry into service planned for 2006. For all the usual political and financial reasons that plague UK defence procurement, the Watchkeeper contract kept slipping to the right but in 2005 it was eventually awarded to Elbit Systems of Israel for the supply of a number of Hermes 450 UAVs and supporting ground equipment with an in-service date of 2010. However, this delay only served to further highlight the inability of the Phoenix to operate in hot/high conditions and as an interim solution to the lack of effective dedicated UK ISTAR assets in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of Hermes 450 UAVs and supporting equipment have been leased from Elbit to undertake these tasks until Watchkeeper finally enters service. Consequently, as the Phoenix system was now no longer required on 31 Mar 2008 it was retired from operational service.

32 Regt RA with Phoenix launcher

The Phoenix was neither cleverly designed nor well engineered and compares poorly with similar systems that could have been quickly purchased off-the-shelf from the US or Israel at far less cost and would have delivered far more effective performance and capability. The fact that Phoenix managed to achieve any effective results at all in nine years of service relects great credit on the men and women of 32 Regt RA who did there best to make a slik purse out of a sowes ear. Nevertheless, this ill-conceived UAV only serves to yet again highlight the inability of the UK government to provide the UK forces with the appropriate equipment.


Sadly even to this day there remain some misguided and rather deranged individuals who believe that Phoenix was a good system and worth the money - despite all the evidence that the whole system should have been strangled at birth. The UK can now build and deliver effective UAVs, but nobody should be stupid enough to be blind to the inadequate operational history of the Phoenix. Thankfully the Phoenix is no more and I doubt it will be much missed by anybody - this is one Phoenix that will never rise from the ashes - it simply lacks the necessary performance.

Updated Feb 2009