While the Pentagon and military analysts question the wisdom and the effectiveness of imposing a “no fly zone” over Ukraine or supplying that country with a small number of used MiG-29 fighters to help beat back the Russian invasion, the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies has broached supplying Ukraine with General Atomics‘ MQ-1 Gray Eagles and MQ-9 Reapers and says that training Ukrainians in the use of the drones for strikes/reconnaissance and sustainment of the drones would only take two to three weeks.
The Pentagon had not responded by press time on whether the provision of MQ-1s and MQ-9s is under consideration, but DoD is providing 100 tactical drones to Ukraine, likely the man-portable, 50-pound AeroVironment, Inc. [AVAV] Switchblade 600 anti-armor “kamikaze” drone (Defense Daily, March 16).
“Because the MQ-1 and MQ-9 can be piloted remotely—meaning that they do not have to be within line-of-sight of the operator—they can be controlled from positions far from areas of direct combat,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the head of the Mitchell Institute, wrote in a March 17 email.
“Of course those locations would be covert and concealed, and they would not need to be colocated with the launch/recovery airfield of the UAVs being controlled, or they could be given the range of either of these systems,” he wrote. “Given the performance of the Russian Aerospace Forces to date over Ukraine, there is little concern of interception/shoot down of these UAVs.”
Ukrainian forces have said that Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones have destroyed many Russian armored vehicles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pleaded with Western allies to “close the sky” over Ukraine, but the Biden administration thus far has suggested that sending Ukraine manned fighters to create a “no fly zone” there could up the nuclear ante between Russia and the U.S.
In addition, it is questionable whether a small number of old MiG-29 fighters from eastern European countries, such as Poland, will provide much benefit to the Ukrainian Air Force, which has said it has dozens of remaining jets .
“A complete Gray Eagle MQ-1 system could be deployed to an adjacent country [to Ukraine] for training within a week,” Deptula wrote in the March 17 email. “The Gray Eagle MQ-1 features automatic take-off and landing, and does not require ‘rated’ pilots to operate. It can also be operated from a laptop computer, instead of a traditional ‘ground control station,’ thus simplifying basing logistics. Transfer to Ukraine could take place by road using a standard container. Aircraft can be quickly reassembled at the deployed location. One to two aircraft flying daily 20+ hour sorties would require a team of at least four maintainers and six aircraft and sensor operators.”
One barrier to providing MQ-1s and MQ-9s have been U.S. State Department’s restrictions on the direct commercial sale of Category 1 drones, including Gray Eagles and Reapers, to other countries–restrictions based on what Deptula called an “outdated” interpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement. Such an analysis conflates “propeller driven UAVs with systems tied to nuclear strike,” Deptula wrote. “Propeller-driven MQ-1s and MQ-9s are not nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.” The MCTR-based restriction on foreign MQ-1 and MQ-9 sales also leads countries in the market for such drones to buy from China, per Deptula.