As Russian forces retreated in southern Ukraine, the Biden administration announced new military support packages for Ukraine, but not all of them lack equipment that Ukraine’s military has long desired: the multipurpose Gray Eagle drone, armed with Hellfire missiles.
According to two officials, the US is studying possible modifications to the dangerous drone. The changes would greatly reduce the likelihood of losing a drone — and the sensitive technology it contains — and could increase Ukraine’s chance of acquiring them.
“Specific and highly technical tweaks and tweaks can be made to make this possible in the short term,” a Congress official said. “But these things take time and are very complicated.”
A U.S. representative confirmed that the military is making efforts to study what modifications can be made to the drone, which is made by General Atomics and is known in the military as the MQ-1C.
“When it comes to drones, it’s about as good as it gets,” says Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for International Strategic Studies. “These are really sophisticated drones.”
However, without any modifications, the Gray Eagle, which can carry four Hellfire missiles and fly at an altitude of 25,000 feet for nearly 30 hours, is unlikely to make the next list of military aid to Ukraine.
“There is a genuine interest in providing this particular system until the necessary modifications are made and they are still useful to Ukraine on the battlefield,” the US representative said.
Discussions about the Gray Eagle are ongoing, and it has not been ruled out or officially denied to Ukraine, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon rejected Ukraine’s request.
“We are pushing, we are not giving up,” said the Ukrainian representative. “It’s a matter of survival [para a Ucrânia].”
Pentagon spokesman Col. Roger Gabinness declined to comment specifically on the Gray Eagle, saying the Defense Department continues to coordinate with Ukraine on security assistance matters.
The White House declined to comment and General Atomics did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to the lethality of the missiles it carries, the Gray Eagle will give Ukrainian forces a greater ability to gather intelligence, conduct long-range reconnaissance, extend support for ground artillery targets, and counter Russian drones.
Throughout the war, the US was slow and reluctant to provide Ukraine with more advanced and long-range capabilities. Like missiles that allow Ukraine to hit Russian territory. Conflict.
In the case of the Gray Eagle, a U.S. representative argued that the concern about the expansion was less about technical safety than the possibility of expensive drones crashing in Ukraine and being recovered by the Russians.
“These are very expensive systems and there are concerns that they could be shot down,” the same representative said, declining to say which parts of the drone are most vulnerable to ending up in Russian hands.
It’s a scenario America has experience with. After the downing of Iranian drones in Ukraine, the US was able to examine the wreckage, The Washington Post reported.
The US representative declined to describe the Gray Eagle’s highly sensitive technology, but said it would not be considered an expansion as similar capabilities are offered.
The technology in question may focus on imaging and intelligence-gathering capabilities and sensors, said Jones of the Center for International Strategic Studies, who believes U.S. fears are more rooted in conflict with Russia.
“It allows the plane to fly farther from the front line,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any risk that they’re using them up close, and they don’t need to use them up close because they can shoot from a distance and collect data from a distance.”
The US has modified its weapons systems before
This is not the first time that changes have been made to US systems for delivery to Ukraine. Assorted parts were removed from the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, leaving only several bolts loose, the Wall Street Journal reported in March. That was enough for the US to send them.
Like the Gray Eagle, the U.S. has rejected requests for long-range ATAMCS missiles with a range of about 300 kilometers. Ukraine is so eager to get them that it has provided the U.S. with a significant level of transparency by sharing its goals, sources told CNN.
When the Ukrainian representative was asked, “We need ATACMS,” other than the Gray Eagle topped the wish list.
The US$400 million package for Ukraine, announced in early November, includes a new commitment of more than 1,000 Phoenix Ghost unmanned drones. Unlike Gray Eagles, they are small, single-use suicide drones.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late March, the Biden administration has backed Ukraine with increasingly advanced weapons. They believe that pushing, while trying not to overreach, will be viewed by Russia as excessive.
Last week, President Joe Biden reiterated his team’s concerns, telling reporters at a press conference: “I don’t want to [a Ucrânia] Start bombing Russian territory.
Biden underscored the fact that while the United States has provided Ukraine with highly effective HIMARS mobile rocket systems, it has not provided the long-range munitions that come with those systems, including ATACMS.
No warplanes have been sent to Ukraine by any NATO country, perhaps the most debated issue of what weapons Ukraine should get.
The flights are still being considered, according to three people familiar with the matter. That means American fighter jets or Soviet born fighter jets like the MiG-29 is a major part of the conversation. The US could ask a country like Poland to supply Ukraine with MiG-29s and the US could give Poland fighter jets.
Sending U.S. fighter jets directly to Ukraine doesn’t make sense, a congressional official said, because there is little air combat, Ukrainian pilots are untrained in the planes and the planes require significant maintenance.
There is also the question of how that will affect the calculus of Russian President Vladimir Putin, amid fears that he might use a nuclear weapon.
“Do we add measures that can tolerate pudding in a bucket that overflows at any time?” asked another person familiar with the discussions. “What is the condition of this bucket now? And how much volume do you propose to add? These are things that US intelligence and security officials are always trying to understand.
Ukrainian officials are increasingly frustrated by the growing general fear that they may have already used HIMARS, the most advanced US system in Ukraine, to reach Russian territory, but have not.
“Honestly, it’s all nonsense. What kind of climbing?” asked the Ukrainian representative. “Are they dropping a nuclear bomb? Or what are we afraid of? I do not understand.”