Earlier this week, US President Joe Biden pledged an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, broadening the scope of the systems offered, in a bid to include heavy artillery, Soviet-origin helicopters, and a barrage of lethal equipment.
Anticipating a lethal Russian military operation in Eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has been pleading with leaders in the US and Europe to give more lethal weapon systems that would aid his troops in delivering a decisive blow to the invading troops.
In the face of Ukraine’s stronger-than-expected fight, Russia has been unable to achieve most of its military objectives. However, alleged war crimes and atrocities against civilians by the Russian troops have triggered additional aid from the NATO countries, some of which include systems that were previously withheld.
The new package includes 11 Mi-17 helicopters that were supposed to be delivered to Afghanistan before the US-backed government fell apart last year. It also includes 155mm howitzers, 40,000 artillery rounds, counter-artillery radars, 200 armored personnel carriers, and 300 more “Switchblade” drones in the package.
Even as these systems that are currently on their way to Ukraine could be expected to give more teeth to Ukraine’s fight, the United States could also dispatch its most advanced and lethal drones to Kyiv soon.
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States told The Washington Post that she met with General Atomics executives last week to discuss the renowned Predator UAV and its heavier successor, the Reaper, as well as the smaller Gray Eagle.
She was quoted as saying “we discussed with General Atomics the prospects of increasing the capacity of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the current situation in Ukraine”.
She did not reveal what kind of equipment Ukraine was looking for from General Atomics, only stating that Ukraine would prefer to “surprise Russia on the battlefield.”
However, the spokesperson for General Atomic, C. Mark Brinkley told the Washington Times that sending aircraft to Ukraine would require US government approval. He also stated that the “Ukrainian pilots already familiar with drone operations would not be ‘starting from scratch in learning how to fly them.”
While the manufacturer General Atomic has the drones ready to be transferred to Ukraine, the ball is in the US government’s court that has so far calibrated the aid transfer to Ukraine against what could constitute aggression by Russia. It has refused to transfer fighter jets to Ukraine, however, that could be substituted by the armed drones.
American Predators, Reapers for Ukraine?
Ukraine has deployed a large number of drones, many of which were purchased from Turkey, to carry out ambushes and aerial strikes on Russian troops. The Neptune missile strike on the Russian ship Moskva was also reportedly aided by the TB2 drones that distracted the adversary. The missile hit, which Moscow has denied, was also apparently observed by the drone, according to Forbes.
Reportedly, the Ukrainians used a Bayraktar TB-2 drone to distract the Moskva. The Ukrainian Navy introduced TB-2s into service in August 2021. /8 pic.twitter.com/icVFy8ePp1
— ChrisO (@ChrisO_wiki) April 14, 2022
General Atomics’ heavier drones could be a game-changer for Ukraine. The US could transfer the MQ-1 Predator or its more advanced successor, the formidable MQ-9 Reaper to the Ukrainian Air Force which has been relying on the Turkish medium-weight drone since the start of the invasion. It could also consider transferring to Ukraine the MQ-1C variant of the battle-proven Gray Eagle.
To put the advantage of an American drone for Ukraine in perspective, the Reaper can carry a payload of roughly 1.7 tons, which is more than ten times the capacity of the Bayraktar TB2. It can also carry surface-to-air missiles, guided bombs, and even heat-seeking air-to-air missiles which could prove to be lethal against the Russians.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov had earlier cited “strike drones” as one type of system the country need last week, along with tanks, anti-ship missiles, artillery, and air defense systems.
The Joe Biden administration had also approved the shipment of Switchblade ‘loitering munitions’ to Ukraine last month which are drones that fly in observation mode, scouting for targets before crashing into one in a kamikaze strike. Switchblade drones are armed with explosives and flown into targets.
NEW: U.S. has delivered a "significant amount" of the first 100 Switchblade drones to Ukrainian troops and the kamikaze drones are being used in the field: senior U.S. defense official
U.S. is working hard to expedite the supplies of more of the drones that detonate over targets
— Jack Detsch (@JackDetsch) April 12, 2022
Additional switchblade drones for Ukraine indicate the success of aerial deployments other than the less than sufficient fleet of fixed-winged aircraft in Ukraine’s arsenal. Ukraine has also used its commercial drones to drop payloads on Russian targets.
With no signs of reductions in military operations from the Russian side and NATO’s hesitation of transferring fighter jets, heavily armed drones could bolster Ukraine’s combat capability on a battlefield that could tilt the balance in Kyiv’s favor.