US drones won’t survive over Ukraine for long, pilots say

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Russian air defenses are too risky for Gray Eagles, Kiev pilots would prefer jets instead

As Washington reportedly waffles on selling Gray Eagle combat drones to Ukraine, military officials in Kiev are asking for fighter jets such as the F-15 and F-16 instead, saying they have a better chance against Russian air defenses.

Ukraine is “not Afghanistan” and the expensive drones would just get shot down, one pilot told Foreign Policy this week.

Retired US officers and pundits like Max Boot have loudly advocated for the delivery of Gray Eagles to Ukraine, calling it a potential “game changer” in the conflict. However, the White House has put plans to send four such drones to Kiev “on hold,” Reuters reported last week, due to fears they could fall into Russian hands. 

While the Ukrainian generals would like to get their hands on the drones, the pilots would prefer US fighter-bombers, according to Foreign Policy

“We are not advocating for the Gray Eagles,” one pilot, who went only by ‘Moonfish’, told the outlet. “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.”

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The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is the latest in the General Atomics lineage of strike drones used during the US “war on terror,” from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia and Yemen. It is armed with Hellfire missiles, which have a range of about eight kilometers – less than the Switchblade or Phoenix Ghost suicide drones the US has sent to Ukraine already.

“It could be useful” on the frontline, said another fighter pilot, introduced as ‘Juice’. However, he added, the Gray Eagles would probably not survive for more than a mission or two. Each drone costs $10 million.

Ukraine has made a big deal out of having Turkish Bayraktar TB2 strike drones in its arsenal. The TB2 costs around $2 million or so. Moonfish claims they were “very useful and important” in the early days of the conflict, but are “almost useless” now that the Russian troops have beefed up their air defenses. The pilots told Foreign Policy that Ukraine was now limiting the use of Bayraktars to “rare special operations and attack missions.” Russian war correspondents, meanwhile, suggest that it’s because most of the drones have been shot down already. 

“We have a lot more pilots than jets right now,” Moonfish said, suggesting he and his colleagues should be trained on “advanced” US fighter jets such as the F-15 and F-16, which would be more survivable against the Russian S-400s.

Both types first appeared in the 1970s. They have been repeatedly upgraded since then, and the latest versions are considered by Western experts to be on par with the Russian Su-35 and MiG-35 jets, and slightly ahead of the Su-27 and Mig-29 fighters Ukraine operated at the start of the conflict. However, there are no indications the US has any to spare, or that there is political will in Washington to send them to Ukraine.


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