US sale of heavy attack drones to Ukraine is at stake

The Biden admin plans sale MQ-1C Gray Eagle are attacking drones in Ukraine, unnamed sources told Reuters in early June, but the deal still needs to be approved by Congress. The Gray Eagles would be a powerful addition to Ukraine’s arsenal, but a political tug of war is taking place over whether or not the drones will go.

US military support for Ukraine began modestly with Shoulder-carried missiles Javelin and Stinger. As the war progressed, the desire to avoid conflict with Russia lessened and controls were relaxed with increasing amounts of heavy equipment supplied, including heavy artillery and vehicles. But while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly expressed his desire for modern aircraft, that seems like a step too far. Air aid did not go much further than sending spare parts for jetsas well as small drones and ammo lying around, including several hundred Switchblades.

The Gray Eagle might be a good compromise. It’s not a jet fighter like the F-35, but a development of the original Predator drone originally built for the US military. The Air Force retired the piston-engined MQ-1 Predator and replaced it with the much more powerful MQ-9 Reaper, which carries approximately 3,800 pounds of weapons compared to the Predator’s 450 pounds, but the Army instead opted for an upgraded Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, with a payload of just over 1,000 pounds. Significantly, this allows him to pack four Hellfire laser-guided anti-tank missiles.

Gray Eagle would be a larger and more capable addition to Ukraine’s iconic Bayraktar TB-2 drones, which have been so effective to knock out Russian armored vehicles, supply convoys and even gunboats.

However, shortly after the potential sale was first reported by Reuters, inside sources told Politco that it would be months before the Ukrainians could fly the Gray Eagles due to the amount of training required. This appears to have been an attempt to discourage lawmakers from moving forward with the deal as a way to solve Ukraine’s immediate problems. A spokesperson for the makers, General Atomics, contradicted that, telling Politico the training could be completed within weeks if needed.

Others have raised doubts about selling gray eagles to Ukraine because they could be used to strike Russia – and the West has been specifically warned that the supply of such weapons could trigger retaliation. President Biden has previously said he do not send missiles to Ukraine capable of hitting Russia. However, Kyiv already has the capability for a Doolittle-style drone attack on Moscow and Gray Eagles wouldn’t make matters worse. Many don’t see a problem.

“When it comes to drones and long-range artillery, we’ve been overly cautious,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash. told the Defense Writers Group Last week.

Now there’s a new hurdle to selling: even more of those inside sources told Reuters that the deal was put on hold due to fears that the Gray Eagle’s advanced radar could fall into Russian hands, which would apparently pose a possible security risk to the United States (although the risk is much greater than Stingers , Javelin and other materials to be captured seems to have been glossed over).

Obviously, there are forces pulling in different directions behind the scenes. Exporting to Ukraine would provide them with much-needed tactical air power capable of hitting Russian artillery and other targets. This would provide many indirect benefits to the United States by providing battlefield experience to the Gray Eagle and refining tactics and technology.

Meanwhile, others may be worried about the extent of the escalation in US support for Ukraine. Yesterday missiles, today artillery: if tomorrow it is heavy drones, will that inevitably mean strike planes and ballistic missiles the day after tomorrow?

However, others issued a note of caution. While the Gray Eagle could carry much more sophisticated defensive aids than the Bayraktar TB-2, some doubt it would survive the dense air defenses that now protect Russian forces.

“It’s a good system with powerful sensors,” tweeted defense analyst Justin Bronk from the RUSI think tank. “However, Hellfire’s standoff distance is only +/- 8 km and the MQ-1C has limited ability to survive against dense Russian SAM cover and fighters above frontline areas.”

Ukraine is convinced that it will make good use of all the weapons it can obtain. They have lobbied for F-16s and other Western aircraft, although these would be much more difficult to deploy than drones. The Gray Eagle would be a test of how quickly Ukraine can tackle cutting-edge modern equipment, and a test of how effective these drones are against close peer opposition.

But above all, the purchase of Gray Eagles is a litmus test of how far the United States will go to support Ukraine against Russian invasion.

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