Front-line pilots in Ukraine are at odds with the country’s chief of staff over the use of US-provided Gray Eagle strike drones, which the pilots say can be easily shot down by Russian air defenses according to Foreign Policy.
“We are not advocating for the Gray Eagles,” one pilot told the outlet, who added that Ukraine’s military general staff are pushing for them. “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 continued, adding: “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. -Foreign Policy
“Their systems are working on a more massive scale,” said Bendett, referring to Russia’s capabilities. “Their early warning radars are working. Their air defenses are working. So losing Gray Eagles is a real possibility to such a layered defense.”
The drones could be used in limited circumstances, however – such as direct action on the front lines, the pilots said.
“It could be useful,” said one active-duty Ukrainian fighter pilot whose call sign is Juice. “It could widen our strike capabilities on the front lines,” he added.
That said, the pilots doubt the Gray Eagles would be likely to survive more than one or two missions, making the prospect of using the $10 million drones a bad idea.
Ukraine has been pulling back on its use of Turkish Bayraktar drones (TB-2s), which were initially effective at stopping Russian armored advances in the Battle of Kyiv, but are now far less useful since Russia’s defenses have come online.
“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 one pilot, who goes by Moonfish.
Now, Ukraine is limiting the use of TB-2s to ‘rare special occasions and attack missions,’ said one of the pilots.
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. -Foreign Policy
With Ukraine’s air operations dialed back from the early days of the war to around 20-30 sorties per day, the pilots say they need to be taken off the flight lines so they can be trained on advanced US fighter jets such as F-15s and F-16s, in the hopes that the country will acquire the platforms. Right now, approximately 70% of Ukraine’s air missions are providing close air support for advancing troops. According to the pilots, bringing advanced US fighter aircraft into the picture could help counter ‘increasingly active’ Russian air defenses.
Officials in Washington, meanwhile, are not optimistic that the deal for Gray Eagles will move forward anytime soon.
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. -Foreign Policy
“They’re hemming and hawing again,” said one US congressional aide familiar with the matter. “It’s like pulling teeth.”