As Russian forces retreated in southern Ukraine, the Biden administration announced a slew of new military support packages for Ukraine, but they all lacked equipment the Ukrainian military has long wanted: a multipurpose Gray Eagle drone armed with Hellfire missiles.
The US is studying modifications that could be made to the deadly drone, two officials said. Modifications that would greatly reduce the likelihood of losing the drone — with its sensitive technology — and possibly increase the likelihood that Ukraine will get them.
“There are specific and very technical small adjustments and tweaks that could make this possible in the short term,” a congressional official said. “But these things take time and are quite complex.”
A US spokesman confirmed that the Army is making efforts to study what modifications can be made to the drone, which is manufactured by General Atomics and referred to by the military as the MQ-1C.
“When it comes to drones, it’s better than ever,” says Seth Jones, director of the international security program at the Center for International Strategic Studies. “These are really sophisticated drones.”
However, without any changes, the Gray Eagle, which can carry four Hellfire missiles and fly at an altitude of 25,000 feet for almost 30 hours, is unlikely to be on the next list of military aid to Ukraine.
“There remains real interest in providing this particular system as long as we can make the necessary changes and in a way that will continue to be useful to Ukraine on the battlefield,” the US official said.
Discussions about the Gray Eagle are ongoing, and Ukraine is not being excluded or officially denied, 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,” the Ukrainian representative said. “It’s a matter of survival [para a Ucrânia]”.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Roger Cabinines declined to comment specifically on Gray Eagle, saying only that the Department of Defense continues to coordinate with Ukraine on security assistance.
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 more ability to gather intelligence, conduct reconnaissance from a greater distance, expand support for artillery targets on the ground, and counter Russian drones.
Throughout the war, the US was slow and reluctant to provide Ukraine with more advanced and longer-range weapons, such as missiles, that would allow Ukraine to attack Russian territory and, as such, could potentially be viewed by Moscow as a significant escalation of the conflict. conflict.
In the case of the Gray Eagle, the US spokesman said the concern was not so much the escalation of the conflict as technological security, namely the possibility that expensive drones could crash in Ukraine and be recovered by the Russians.
“These are very expensive systems and there are fears that they could be shot down,” the same spokesman said, declining to say which parts of the drone would be more dangerous if they fell into Russian hands.
This is a scenario in which the US has experience. After Iranian drones were shot down in Ukraine, the US was able to study the wreckage, according to The Washington Post.
The US representative declined to elaborate on Gray Eagle’s more sensitive technologies, but said it would not be considered an escalation as similar capabilities are provided.
The technology in question is likely to focus on imaging and intelligence-gathering capabilities and sensors, according to Jones of the Center for International Strategic Studies, suggesting that US fears have more to do with the escalating conflict with Russia.
“This allows you to fly much farther from the front line,” he said. “I don’t think they would risk using them up close and they wouldn’t need to use them up close as they can fire from a distance and collect data from a distance.”
US modified weapons systems before
This is not the first time that changes have been made to the American delivery systems to Ukraine. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that classified components had been removed from Stinger anti-aircraft missiles by loosening only a few bolts. This was enough for the US to send them.
As with the Gray Eagle, the US has also turned down requests for ATAMCS long-range missiles with a range of about 300 kilometers. Ukraine is so eager to get them that it has offered the US a remarkable level of transparency by sharing its goals, sources told CNN.
“We need ATACMS,” repeated the Ukrainian representative when asked what else besides the Gray Eagle was at the top of the wish list.
The $400 million package for Ukraine, announced in early November, included a new commitment to supply more than 1,000 Phoenix Ghost drones. Unlike the Gray Eagles, these are smaller disposable suicide drones.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in late March, the Biden administration has backed Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons. To promote, trying not to cross the line, which, in their opinion, Russia would consider excessive.
Last week, President Joe Biden confirmed his team’s concerns, telling reporters at a press conference, “I don’t intend to [a Ucrânia] start bombing Russian territory.”
Biden highlighted the fact that while the US has provided Ukraine with high-performance HIMARS mobile missile systems, it has not provided the long-range munitions that accompany those systems, including ATACMS.
No NATO country has sent fighter jets to Ukraine, perhaps the most debated issue of what weapons should be provided to Ukraine.
The planes are still under consideration, according to three people familiar with the matter. Whether you mean US military aircraft or Soviet-made fighter jets like the MiG-29 is a key part of the conversation. The US could ask a country like Poland to provide Ukraine with MiG-29s and Poland with American fighter jets.
Sending U.S. warplanes directly to Ukraine doesn’t make much sense, a congressional official said, because there is little air combat, Ukrainian pilots aren’t trained to operate the planes, and the planes require serious maintenance.
Then there is the question of how this will affect the calculations of Russian President Vladimir Putin, given the fear that he might use nuclear weapons.
Are we adding measures that Putin can tolerate to a bucket that could overflow at any moment? asked another person familiar with the discussions. “What level is this bucket now? And how much do we propose to add? These are things that US intelligence and defense officials are always trying to understand.”
Ukrainian authorities are becoming increasingly frustrated with general escalation fears, pointing out that they may have used HIMARS — the most advanced U.S. system in Ukraine to date — to infiltrate Russian territory, but have not done so.
“Honestly, this is all nonsense. What is the ascent? the Ukrainian representative asked. “That they dropped a nuclear bomb? Or what are we afraid of? I do not understand.”