‘It’s Not Afghanistan’: Ukrainian Pilots Push Back on U.S.-Provided Drones

Both the Biden administration and Ukraine are worried that American strike drones would get shot down quickly.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
MQ-9 Reaper drone
MQ-9 Reaper drone
An MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, on Aug. 8, 2007. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ukrainian military officials are enmeshed in a hotly contested debate over whether U.S.-provided Gray Eagle strike drones can be effective against increasingly resilient Russian air defenses, while the Biden administration considers providing Kyiv with the systems that became ubiquitous in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The risk of operating drones in Ukraine, which saw cheap strike drones like the Turkish Bayraktar have significant impact against the Russian military in the first days of the war, has increased as the fight has moved east to the Donbas region, which abuts Russia’s Western Military District and larger clusters of advanced air defense systems, such as S-300 and S-400 missile batteries.

But there is a split between front-line airmen and Ukraine’s chief of staff on the drones, according to multiple Ukrainian military officials, who recently spoke to Foreign Policy and other media outlets on condition of anonymity, identified only by their military call signs.

Ukrainian military officials are enmeshed in a hotly contested debate over whether U.S.-provided Gray Eagle strike drones can be effective against increasingly resilient Russian air defenses, while the Biden administration considers providing Kyiv with the systems that became ubiquitous in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The risk of operating drones in Ukraine, which saw cheap strike drones like the Turkish Bayraktar have significant impact against the Russian military in the first days of the war, has increased as the fight has moved east to the Donbas region, which abuts Russia’s Western Military District and larger clusters of advanced air defense systems, such as S-300 and S-400 missile batteries.

But there is a split between front-line airmen and Ukraine’s chief of staff on the drones, according to multiple Ukrainian military officials, who recently spoke to Foreign Policy and other media outlets on condition of anonymity, identified only by their military call signs.

“We are not advocating for the Gray Eagles,” said one pilot, referred to as Moonfish. The Ukrainian military’s general staff, he said, are advocating for the drones. “There’s no good Air Force mind next to our chief of staff or commander who would say, speak up and say, hey, that’s B.S.”

“It’s very dangerous to use such expensive drones in our case, because of the enemy’s air defense,” he added. “It’s not Afghanistan here.”

Both Ukrainian and American officials are increasingly concerned that Gray Eagles could be shot down by advanced Russian air defense systems. The attack drones are armed with Hellfire missiles that can hit targets only up to about 5 miles away, far less than the one-way kamikaze drones that the United States has provided to Ukraine. In just the past several weeks, Russia has beefed up air defenses on the border and inside Ukraine, said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank.

“Their systems are working on a more massive scale,” he said. “Their early warning radars are working. Their air defenses are working. So losing Gray Eagles is a real possibility to such a layered defense.”

There are some situations in which the drones could find use, such as in direct action on the front lines, the pilots said. “It could be useful,” said an active-duty Ukrainian fighter pilot who asked to be identified by his call sign, Juice. “It could widen our strike capabilities on the front lines.” But they also doubted that the Gray Eagles would be likely to survive more than a mission or two, making them not worth the cost of using the $10 million unmanned vehicles.

The Ukrainian pilots said that their Air Force has mostly pulled back strikes using Turkish Bayraktar drones, also known as TB-2s, which proved effective at stopping Russian armored advances during the battle of Kyiv. “They were very useful and important in the very first days, stopping those columns, but now that they’ve built up good air defenses, they’re almost useless,” said Moonfish, the Ukrainian fighter pilot. Ukrainian troops are limiting the use of Bayraktars to rare special operations and attack missions, the pilots said.

One Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that commanders on the ground see equal utility between Gray Eagle drones and loitering munitions, such as the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones, for destroying Russian tanks and military positions. Ukrainian officials are advocating for the United States to quickly send American air defenses and advanced fighter aircraft to the front lines, though those weapons typically take years to reach U.S. allies and require in most cases specialized training out of the country.

But unlike in the early days of the war, Ukraine has dialed back its air operations to between 20 to 30 sorties per day. “We have a lot more pilots than jets right now,” Moonfish said. They argue for taking more Ukrainian pilots off the flight lines for training on advanced U.S. fighter jets, such as F-15s and F-16s, in hopes of obtaining the new platforms. About 70 percent of Ukraine’s air missions are now close air support to help advancing troops, a role that both U.S. jets can perform. The pilots said that bringing in advanced U.S. fighter aircraft could help suppress increasingly active Russian air defenses.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has managed to keep its air defenses mostly intact nearly four months into the war with a shoot-and-move strategy and more decentralized tactics than Russia, said Denys Smazhnyi, a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel who specializes in training anti-aircraft units. Smazhnyi added that Ukraine’s anti-aircraft batteries had destroyed 500 targets, including 150 Russian helicopters and a similar number of cruise missiles, since the start of the war, though the figures were not independently verified.

But back in Washington, few officials are optimistic the deal for Gray Eagles will move ahead quickly. Russian officials had been collecting intelligence on American long-range drones for years prior to this conflict, said Bendett, the CNA drone expert. And those concerns are beginning to bubble up within the Biden administration. Reuters reported last week that American officials are concerned that sensitive equipment onboard could fall into Russian hands, leading to yet more hand-wringing from an administration that, while ultimately generous in its military support for Ukraine, has drawn criticism for being too sluggish in its response.

“They’re hemming and hawing again,” said a congressional aide familiar with the debate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s like pulling teeth.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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