The Air Force thought it had the perfect plan: Take its older Reaper drones, which it’s been trying to get rid of for years, and send them to Ukraine, a country begging for long-range weaponry.
But after months of internal wrangling, the Pentagon has yet to make a decision — even though the drones could provide a capability to Ukraine that it’s wanted since the start of the war.
The Air Force made the pitch to send its older Reaper drones to Ukraine about a month after Russia invaded in late February. But concerns over the transfer of sensitive technology, and the fact that some would almost certainly be shot down, has led to a months-long stalemate, according to four people familiar with the issue.
The four people were granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The debate over the armed drones has see-sawed for much longer than for other once-controversial systems, such as artillery and long-range tactical missile systems, both of which began arriving by the summer as fighting escalated.
The stance has frustrated Ukrainian officials who have pledged to use the donated drones to strike only Russian positions within Ukraine, and have promised to share targeting information with the U.S. before launching strikes, one of the people said.
Both the Reaper and the Army version — the Gray Eagle — would give Ukraine a critical new capability as the country’s forces press on occupied Crimea and the well-defended Russian frontlines in Donbas. The issue isn’t off the table, DoD and industry officials have suggested, as the Pentagon and drone maker General Atomics continue to try to make one or both drones transferable to Ukraine.
Since the early days of the war, the Air Force Reapers and Army Gray Eagles have been high on Kyiv’s wish list, as they would give Ukraine a vastly expanded surveillance and strike capability, which is vital in a war heavily reliant on artillery duels and drone attacks.
General Atomics executives have been in contact with Ukrainian officials for months in attempts to reach an agreement on technology transfers that would comply with U.S. rules and concerns.
The Air Force has been trying to scrap older versions of its Reaper fleet for years to free up money to buy and operate more cutting-edge technology, but Congress has shot down the proposal each time.
The most recent proposal in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which requests the transfer of 100 Reapers to another government agency, would conceivably free up some of the drones to send to Ukraine. The Air Force would not confirm which government agency, but the U.S. Customs and Border Protection also flies Reapers, and it is unclear if the drones would be drawn from the Air Force or special operations fleets.
The Air Force is already operating the aircraft in Europe. Last year, the Air Force began flying Reaper missions from Romania.
In March, the service asked the major commands that fly the Reaper to assess the impact on their units if the U.S. transfers the drones to Ukraine, and Air Force Special Operations Command volunteered to send their drones, said two people with knowledge of the discussions. AFSOC flies roughly 50 Reapers and those drones are equipped with full-motion video that does not come with the baseline system. That offer wound its way through the Pentagon bureaucracy, where it still sits.
The Air Force referred a request for comment to the Pentagon, and Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said he had no updates on where the issue stands.
California Republican Ken Calvert, ranking member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and whose district is near General Atomics headquarters, confirmed the Air Force had initially signed off on sending MQ-9s to Ukraine, but said leadership has not “bought into” the idea.
“We ought to be able to put in the MQ-9 Reaper and Gray Eagles that would help change the course of this war,” Calvert said in an interview.
Calvert also wants to begin training the Ukrainians on the Reapers and Gray Eagles ahead of a White House decision. He argues once the administration makes a decision it could take three to four months to train new users.
The MQ-9 Reaper, also known as Predator B, was built to support the military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there was no danger of them being shot down. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle was developed later as an upgrade of the MQ-1 Predator for the Army.
Gray Eagle push
General Atomics has led a lobbying effort in Washington and Kyiv to devise a solution for modifying its Gray Eagle technology to fit U.S. demands for exportability. A Raytheon Technologies-made electro-optical/infrared ball on the Gray Eagle provides real-time intelligence, targeting and tracking to its operators. But nothing so far has swayed the Biden administration.
Congress has also expressed plenty of frustration with the months of deliberation over the drones.
A bipartisan group of 16 senators, led by Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), urged Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a Nov. 22 letter to answer a series of questions on transferring the Gray Eagle, since the drone is Ukraine’s “highest priority” military transfer request.
During the time the Pentagon has considered transferring the drones to Ukraine, Ukraine has purchased or received donated Turkish-made TB2 drones that have proven effective in the early going, but which have subsequently been targeted by Russian air defenses and electronic jamming. Those attacks have limited their ability to operate, and raised concerns in the Pentagon over how U.S. drones would fare in that environment.
“It’s in our interest to give [Ukraine] what they need to defend their territory and push them out,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California last week, adding that when it comes to the drones, “we are looking at survivability….is a system like Grey Eagle survivable in a very contested air environment?”
Appearing on the same panel, Ernst dismissed those concerns and showed little apprehension over the transfer of sensitive technology. “If they’re using an S-300 to shoot down a Gray Eagle, that allows us then to target that S-300,” she said. “We can outfit a Gray Eagle with technology that is already being used in 30 other countries.”
The senator tied the drone issue to the Biden administration’s refusal to send longer-range rockets that could strike deep inside Russia. “We should be pounding the bloody hell of the Russians, through the Ukrainians, so that they can’t pop their heads up and come back in five to 10 years,” Ernst said.
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.