Equipping the Ukrainian military with the successor of the well-known Predator drones means three revolutions in warfare with drones at once.
The U.S. government plans to deliver four MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed drones to Ukraine in the coming days and also provide training for pilots and operators. This was reported by Reuters news agency last week in an exclusive report, citing three different sources.
Before a public announcement of the weapons delivery, however, Congress will be informed, a U.S. official told the agency. A White House spokesman, meanwhile, commented when asked by Reuters that there was nothing to announce.
Oldest armed drone in the U.S. military
The MQ-1C is an evolution of the MQ-1, the oldest U.S. Air Force drone, known as the Predator. It is a long-range drone for flights at altitudes up to 15 kilometers. Aircraft in this category are classified as Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE). It can stay in the air for up to 30 hours.
In the U.S. military, MQ-1C drones manufactured by the General Atomics defense contractor are flown by the Army. They are usually armed with up to eight Hellfire air-to-ground missiles optimized for engaging armored vehicles. They can be laser-guided into the target.
Armament with Hellfire missiles
The Gray Eagle is also to be armed with Hellfire missiles against Russia, three people familiar with the situation had told Reuters. The export of the guided weapons will be carried out through a so-called Presidential Drawdown Authority, according to the agency.
The clause in the Constitution allows the president to decide on an immediate shipment of goods and services without congressional approval in an “unforeseen emergency.”
The delivery of the drones is to be funded by the recently approved $40 billion initiative. Training for pilots, sensor and weapons operators would also be covered through it.
Training in just a few weeks
Normally, training on the U.S. drone system takes several months, Reuters quotes drone expert Dan Gettinger as saying. However, for the delivery to Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Defense has devised a plan to train already experienced Ukrainian operators and maintenance personnel in just a few weeks, he said.
The plan to sell the MQ-1C has reportedly been under consideration at the Pentagon “for several weeks.” However, the sale could still be blocked by Congress. The three anonymous sources told Reuters of the risk of a last-minute political U-turn.
First deployment for national defense
An MQ-1C delivery to Ukraine would mark three revolutions in unmanned warfare. For the first time, such a large combat drone would be used for national defense.
Although Ukraine also flies the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 against the Russian attackers, it weighs no more than a third of the takeoff weight and has less endurance.
In addition, the Ukrainian TB2s carry only four small Turkish-made MAM-L missiles, which weigh about half as much as a Hellfire.
First missions in interstate war
Moreover, this would be the first use of a long-range drone in a war between two states. Russia claims to have already flown attacks with its Orion in Ukraine, but there are doubts about this. Azerbaijan’s air force also used a similarly large drone, the Israeli Hermes 900, in the war against Nagorno-Karabakh two years ago. However, this one was unarmed.
Attacks with U.S. armed drones have also been documented in Afghanistan or Pakistan since the turn of the millennium, but these were not warlike confrontations between states. Many missions for the extralegal execution of alleged terrorists were also carried out by the CIA intelligence service.
Finally, the U.S. typically sells its armed drones exclusively to NATO allies. Armed Predator and its successor Reaper have so far been exported exclusively to the UK, soon to be followed by France and Italy. Also unusual is the policy of delivering the attack weapon to a war zone.
Other drones can mark targets
In addition to the TB2s from Turkey, Ukraine has several unmanned aerial vehicles. The U.S. has already delivered armed Switchblades, which belong to the Loitering Munitions class. Depending on their size, they can stay above the target for up to 40 minutes and descend on it at an opportune moment. The first use of such a weapon has already been documented.
In addition, the Ukrainian Army flies numerous smaller drones, including commercially available quadrocopters from the electronics market. The U.S. government also approved the delivery of RQ-20 Puma. The hand-launched miniature aircraft are used for reconnaissance. But with a laser marker, they can also illuminate targets that are then attacked by artillery or larger combat drones such as the MQ-1C.
Image: MQ-1C Gray Eagle (U.S. Army).