As Russian forces have retreated in southern Ukraine, the Biden administration has announced a flurry of new military aid to Ukraine, but all have been missing a piece of weaponry the Ukrainian military has long sought: the multipurpose Gray Eagle drone armed with Hellfire. the missiles
According to the two officials, the US is considering possible modifications to the deadly drone. Changes that would allow for any loss – with the sensitive technology on board – would be less risky and would increase Ukraine’s chances of receiving it.
“There are specific and highly technical tweaks and sterilizations that could make it possible in the near term,” a congressional official said. “But those things take time and are quite complex.”
A U.S. official confirmed that the Army is leading a review of possible modifications to the drone, made by General Atomics and known by the Army as the MQ-1C.
“When you’re talking to drones, this is as good as you can get,” says Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re really sophisticated drones.”
Without the changes, however, the Gray Eagle, which can carry four Hellfire missiles and fly at 25,000 feet for nearly 30 hours, would likely not be on the list of military aid assigned to Ukraine.
“There is still real interest in offering this particular system if we can make the necessary changes and if they are useful to Ukraine on the battlefield,” the US official said.
Discussions about the Gray Eagle are ongoing and have not been ruled out or officially denied to Ukraine, US officials and a Ukrainian official said. The Wall Street Journal previously reported that the Pentagon had refused Ukraine’s request.
“We are retreating, we have not given up,” said the Ukrainian official. “This is about survival [for Ukraine]”.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Roger Cabiness would not comment specifically on the gray eagle, saying the Defense Department continues to consult with Ukraine about security assistance.
The White House had no comment and General Atomics did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to the lethal capability of the missiles it carries, the Gray Eagle would allow Ukrainian forces to gather intelligence and conduct longer-range reconnaissance, deploy artillery targeting support on the ground, and counter drones flown by Russia.
Throughout the war, the U.S. has been slow and reluctant to offer Ukraine more advanced and longer-range capabilities, such as missiles that would allow Ukraine to strike inside Russia and thus be seen by Moscow as a significant escalation of the conflict.
In the case of the Gray Eagle, one US official argued, the concern is less about scaling than about technological security: the possibility that expensive drones could be brought down in Ukraine and retrieved by the Russians.
“These are very expensive systems and there is concern that they could be taken down,” the official said, declining to say which parts of the drone would be the most dangerous if they end up in Russian hands.
This is a scenario that the US has recently received. After the downing of Iranian drones in Ukraine, the US was able to examine the debris, the Washington Post reported.
The U.S. official declined to say which Gray Eagle technology is the most sensitive, but said no increase would be considered because similar capabilities are being offered.
The technology in question likely relies on imagery and intelligence-gathering capabilities and sensors, CSIS’s Jones said, adding that he believes U.S. fears are rooted in escalating conflict with Russia.
“You’re really going to be flying pretty far from the front lines,” he said. “I don’t think you’d risk them up close and you wouldn’t need them up close because they can shoot from a distance and collect [intelligence] from a distance.”
This would not be the first time that changes have been made to US systems to bring them to Ukraine. As the Wall Street Journal reported in March, classified components were removed by removing several screws from Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. That was enough for the US to send them out.
Like the Gray Eagle, the U.S. has so far scaled back orders for the long-range ATAMCS missiles, which have a range of about 200 miles (300 kilometers). Ukraine is so eager to achieve them that it has offered a remarkable level of transparency with the US, sharing its goals, sources told CNN.
“We need ATACMS,” the Ukrainian official repeated when asked what else, along with the Gray Eagle, was at the top of the wish list.
A US$400 million package to Ukraine earlier this month included another commitment of more than 1,000 unmanned Phoenix Ghost drones. Unlike the Gray Eagle, they are smaller single-use suicide drones.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late March, the Biden administration has supported Ukraine with increasingly advanced weapons. Pushing the line that Russia would over-emit, while trying not to cross it.
Last week, President Joe Biden echoed his team’s concerns, telling reporters at a news conference: “I’m not looking. [Ukraine] To start bombing Russian territory.’
Biden pointed out that although the US has provided Ukraine with highly effective HIMARS mobile missile systems, it has not been offered the long-range munitions that go with these systems, including ATACMS.
No NATO country has sent fighter jets to Ukraine, perhaps the hardest part of the debate over what weapons to give Ukraine.
Three people familiar with the discussions say they are still looking into it. Whether that means US warplanes or fighters of Soviet origin like the Mig-29 is a key part of the conversation. The US could ask a country like Poland to give Mig-29s to Ukraine and fill Poland with American planes.
Sending American warplanes directly to Ukraine makes little sense, the congressional official said, because there is little air-to-air combat, Ukrainian pilots are not trained in them and they require significant maintenance.
Then there’s the question of how it will affect the calculus of Russian President Vladimir Putin, amid fears he could use a nuclear weapon.
“Are we pouring into a bucket that ever overflows with the escalation measures that Putin can accept?” asked another person familiar with the discussions. “What’s the level on that ship now? And how much volume do you propose to add? These are the things that US intelligence and defense officials are constantly trying to figure out.
Ukrainian officials are increasingly frustrated with the administration’s general fear of escalation, saying they could already use HIMARS – the most advanced US system in Ukraine to date – to strike Russian territory, but have not.
“This is stupid, honestly, what kind of climbing?” asked the Ukrainian official. “They drop a nuclear bomb, or what are we afraid of? I don’t understand this”.