Ukraine Bets On Reaper-ATACMS Pairing To Push Back Russian Military; Will US Approve MQ-9 Sale To Kyiv?

The MQ-9 Reaper drone has emerged as a critical system that could possibly help reverse many of the tactical advantages Russia enjoys on the ground in Ukraine. This has increased Ukrainian pressure on the US to donate the platform to allow long-range high-endurance and high-altitude reconnaissance deep into Russian defensive lines. 

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Russia has destroyed almost all of the Western weapons sent to Ukraine, including Leopard, Abrams tanks, High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones, and Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missiles. 

Even the F-16s that are set to arrive have long been assessed by both Kyiv’s officials and US experts as ‘not real game changers.’ But the Reapers are a different ballgame, which, despite their vulnerability to Russian anti-air warfare, are more suited to the primarily ground war, centered around control of territory. 

‘Ukraine Desperate For Reapers’

According to a report on Politico, Ukraine is “increasingly interested in obtaining the MQ-9 Reapers” from the US, “bumping it up to the top of its wish list.” This comes amid plans for fresh “operations for the summer,” where it “seeks new ways to help identify Russian targets deep behind the front lines.”

Kyiv had sought the Reaper “since the early days of the war” for “strike and surveillance missions.” But recently, Ukraine has “dialed back that request and is mainly interested in using Reapers only for reconnaissance, according to four people familiar with the issue who were granted anonymity to discuss the new strategy.”  

This implies the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) will use the Reapers without its heavy payloads of air-to-ground Hellfire missiles or Paveway-kitted bombs.

In all likelihood, AFU planners must have also not expected the US to train its crew on the Reapers and would have welcomed American Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) pilots to operate the UAV from within Ukrainian territory. The AFU is cognizant of the rigorous familiarization and proficiency with the technology and tactics of flying a highly sophisticated drone like the MQ-9 Reaper. 

US and NATO specialists have anyway long been unofficially present on the ground since the beginning of the war, analyzing data from surveillance platforms like MQ-4B Global Hawk, E-3 Sentry AWACS, and RC-135 Rivet electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft. 

It now remains a question whether the US would transfer Reapers from its own inventory (if approved by Washington) or use the ones already patrolling the Black Sea.

These Reapers are likely operating from the US’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which is home to the 163rd Attack Wing that operates the drone. The report quoted “three industry officials” saying that the “request has become more important to Kyiv as it looks for any battlefield advantage it can muster.”

Reaper Drone
File Image: Reaper Drone

How Can The Reapers Help?

With the acquisition of the 300-kilometer-range variant of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), the thinking in Ukraine is that pairing it with an established unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) is the only way to attain some gains in the large artillery and ground systems-centric war. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries’ weakness in production capacity and Russia’s staggering industrial strength have been the driving lessons from Russia’s triumph at the strategic level despite many tactical losses. 

Russia’s artillery advantage is maximized by a potent reconnaissance-strike complex. UAVs like the large Sirius and smaller Orlan are well networked, alerting gun and tube rocket artillery crews of any strike opportunities behind or close to the frontlines.

The bizarre destruction of three Ukrainian helicopters on the ground to Russian artillery hits in mid-March was the result of this resilient ‘kill chain.’ 

The MQ-9 Reaper, with its nearly 25-hour endurance, sophisticated multi-mode electro-optical sighting systems, and communications technology, can coordinate with ground and air assets, watching Russian surface movements from a safe altitude and distance. A defining feature is the Raytheon Technologies’ (now RTX) electro-optical Multispectral Targeting System-B (MTS-B) turret that provides real-time intelligence, targeting, and tracking. 

The optical surveillance can serve as data for missile crews. Some modular systems in the Reaper also allow it to lend course correction to missiles while in flight. Reapers have often flown over the southern Black Sea, assessed to collect Russian radar emissions and positions of its Black Sea Fleet (BSF) warships before Ukrainian kamikaze drone boats and Storm Shadow land-attack cruise missile (LACM) strikes.  

Ukraine had its eyes set on the Reaper as far back as 2022, when Russia commenced the Special Military Operation (SMO) in February that year. Even in principle, the Pentagon agreed to transfer the US Air Force’s (USAF) older MQ-9 Reapers and some of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle – the US Army’s version of the Reaper – that the two services planned to retire.

It, however, did not get around to finally approving it, with the ultimate fear of the drones being shot down and falling into Russian hands, holding the DoD back.  

That fear was not unjustified, as in mid-March 2023, a Russian Su-27 fighter downed a Reaper by dumping fuel on the aircraft, causing it to crash into the Black Sea. Subsequent reports from Russia claimed that Moscow retrieved the drone to unravel the top-of-the-line American optical sensor, electronics, and satellite communication technology.  

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Russia’s Options

From within the war zone, Russia will use lethal force by downing it with an air defense missile, most likely a platform like the S-300. But that would also mean that the S-300 would reveal itself as well, allowing Ukrainian kamikaze drone, HIMARS, or ATACMS operators to quickly target the missile launcher when the Reaper sends back ELINT data. 

The Reaper would, therefore, be used very sparingly, reserved for a highly coordinated operation when Ukraine is eyeing a High-Value Target (HVT) in the Russian army’s rear or Crimea.

But again, neither can Ukraine quickly replace the system nor can the US manufacture it rapidly. Worse, unlike the war in the Black Sea or the US’s fight with the Houthis in the Red Sea, it doesn’t put Russia at a skewed cost-to-benefit ratio: a $2 million S-300 missile is far cheaper to use against a slow-moving $32 million MQ-9.