Ukraine is negotiating the purchase of American-made heavy drones that could change the balance of the war. Last week, Ukrainian officials met in Washington with General Atomics, a California-based manufacturer of military drones, including the MQ-9 Reaper, the U.S. Air Force’s main reconnaissance and strike drone. “We have aircraft available now for immediate transfer,” said C. Mark Brinkley, a spokesman for General Atomics. “With support from the U.S. government, those aircraft could be in the hands of Ukrainian military pilots in a matter of days.”
The Biden administration is already planning to supply Ukraine with more advanced weapons, according to the Washington Post. Concerned that heavy weapons such as tanks and jet fighters will escalate the conflict, the United States has provided Ukraine with smaller weapons, such as Javelin portable anti-tank missiles (review) and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles (review), as well as small 2.5 kg Switchblade drones (review).
MQ-9, on the contrary, is no small beast. Although General Atomics has not mentioned the specific models it could sell, the most likely candidate will be the Reaper, which along with the former MQ-1 Predator has been the basis of US military drone operations for more than 20 years.
MQ-9 can radically change the war, where drones have become one of Ukraine’s most destructive weapons against Russian armored columns. An unexpected star of the Ukrainian drone fleet was Bayraktar TB-2 (review) made in Turkey.
Equipped with laser-guided missiles, the TB-2, about 20 of which are believed to be in Ukraine, destroyed hundreds of Russian tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. Despite significant Russian investments in air defense, Russian fighters and air weapons have proved surprisingly ineffective against Ukrainian UAVs, including modified drones.
But comparing the TB-2 to the MQ-9 is like comparing the Hummer to a passenger sedan. The MQ-9 has a wingspan of 20 m compared to 11 m in the TB-2. The MQ-9 weighs about 4.76 tons, fully loaded with fuel and weapons, compared to 600 kg in the TB-2. Reaper is twice as fast, at a speed of about 400 km/h against about 200 km/h in the TB-2.
Perhaps the most significant difference is the much better range of the MQ-9: up to 2,000 km for the base model and 2,500 km for the ER version (extended range), compared to only 150 km for the TB-2. The Turkish drone operates quite close to the front line in eastern and southern Ukraine, making it more vulnerable to Russian air and missile strikes at airfields. But MQ-9 could allow using safer bases in eastern Ukraine. An additional Reaper range could be crucial to save Ukraine’s drone fleet from Russian revenge. MQ-9 has a range of impact that will allow it to fly deep into Russia and up to Moscow.
General Atomics claims that Ukraine will benefit from more advanced American drones. “They will significantly expand the ISR [intelligence and surveillance] capabilities of all military forces and provide powerful capabilities for strikes that smaller combat UAVs are incapable of,” Brinkley said.
But the TB-2 has one big advantage over the MQ-9: it’s much cheaper. TB-2 costs between $1 and $2 million, while MQ-9 is estimated to cost up to $32 million apiece. There’s also another obstacle to Ukraine’s purchase of the MQ-9. The most obvious is training and familiarization: the Ukrainian military is accustomed to control equipment of the Russian (actually Soviet) era, not Western models, and the US Air Force requires a year of training for UAV pilots.
However, General Atomics is confident that they will be able to train Ukrainian crews quickly. “Military pilots who are already familiar with UAV operations could be taught to fly our aircraft quickly,” Brinkley said. “There are qualified military pilots in Ukraine who are familiar with UAV operations and who are motivated to defend their homes,” Brinkley added. “We don’t start from scratch.”
Another issue is survivability. Although Russia’s air defenses have proved extremely ineffective against drones, history has shown that armies eventually adapt. So far, MQ-9 has been used in such areas: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria – where the enemy lacked a serious air defense. Russia’s supersonic jet fighters, if handled properly, can be a threat for the slow drones.
Although, drones have become a disaster for the Russian army, which relies on tanks and artillery to support its offensive. Even a few American-made heavy drones, driven by determined Ukrainian pilots, can give Ukrainians an advantage over the enemy in numbers and weapons.