Gray Eagle: US studying how to modify powerful armed drone as Ukrainian demand increases

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Washington
CNN

As Russian forces retreated into southern Ukraine, the Biden administration announced a series of new military aid programs for Ukraine, but all were missing one piece of weaponry that the military Ukrainian company had been looking for a long time: the versatile Gray Eagle drone, armed with Hellfire. missiles.

According to two officials, the United States has studied possible modifications to the deadly drone. Changes that would make the potential to lose them – with their sensitive on-board technology – less dangerous and perhaps increase the likelihood of Ukraine receiving them.

“There are specific, very technical adjustments and castrations that can be made to these that could make it possible in the short term,” a congressional official said. “But these things take time and are quite complex.”

A US official confirmed that the military is leading efforts to study possible changes to the drone, which is brought by General Atomics and referred to in the military as the MQ-1C.

“When you’re talking about drones, that’s about as good as it gets,” says Seth Jones, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “These are really sophisticated drones.”

Without any changes, however, the Gray Eagle, which can carry four Hellfire missiles and fly at 25,000 feet for nearly 30 hours, would likely not appear on future lists of military aid allocated to Ukraine.

“There is still a real interest in providing this particular system, provided we can make the necessary modifications and they are still useful to Ukraine on the battlefield,” the US official said.

Gray Eagle discussions are ongoing and it has not been ruled out or officially denied to Ukraine, the US official and a Ukrainian official said. The Wall Street Journal previously reported that the Pentagon denied Ukraine’s request.

“We are pushing back, we have not given up,” the Ukrainian official said. “It’s a matter of survivability. [for Ukraine].”

Pentagon spokesman Col. Roger Cabiness would not comment specifically on the Gray Eagle, saying only that the Department of Defense continues to consult with Ukraine on security assistance.

The White House declined to comment, and General Atomics did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the lethal capability of the missiles it carries, the Gray Eagle would allow Ukrainian forces a greater ability to gather intelligence and conduct reconnaissance at greater ranges, extend artillery targeting assistance to the ground and combat drones piloted by Russia.

Throughout the war, the United States was slow and reluctant to provide Ukraine with significantly more advanced and longer-range capabilities, such as missiles that would allow Ukraine to strike inside the Russia and therefore potentially to be perceived by Moscow as a significant escalation of the conflict.

In the case of the Gray Eagle, a US official explained, the concern is less about escalation and more about technological security: the possibility of the expensive drones falling in Ukraine and being picked up by the Russians.

“These are very expensive systems and there are fears that they could be shot down,” the official said, declining to say which parts of the drone would be the most dangerous if they ended up in Russian hands.

This is a scenario that the United States has recently fallen victim to. After Iranian drones were shot down in Ukraine, the United States was able to examine the wreckage, The Washington Post reported.

The US official declined to specify which Gray Eagle technology is more sensitive, but said it would not be considered an escalation since similar capabilities are provided.

The technology in question likely centers on imaging and intelligence-gathering capabilities and sensors, CSIS’s Jones said, adding that he believes US fears are more rooted in the escalating conflict with Russia.

“You’re really going to fly them quite far from the front lines,” he said. “I don’t think you would risk them up close and need them up close because they can shoot from a distance and they can collect [intelligence] from a certain distance.”

It would not be the first time that modifications have been made to American systems to bring them to Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that classified components were removed from Stinger anti-aircraft missiles by simply removing several screws. That was enough for the United States to ship them.

Like the Gray Eagle, the United States has also so far pushed back requests for long-range ATAMCS missiles, with a range of around 200 miles (300 kilometers). Ukraine is so keen on getting them that it has offered a remarkable level of transparency with the United States, sharing its goals, sources told CNN.

“We need ATACMS,” reiterated the Ukrainian official when asked what, along with the gray eagle, was high on their wish list.

A US$400 million package for Ukraine announced earlier this month included another commitment of more than 1,000 unmanned Phoenix Ghost drones. Unlike the Gray Eagle, these are smaller single-use suicide drones.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late March, the Biden administration has backed Ukraine with increasingly advanced weaponry. Pushing, while trying not to cross, a line they think Russia would consider too escalatory.

Last week, President Joe Biden reiterated his team’s concerns, telling reporters at a press conference, “I’m not looking [Ukraine] start bombing Russian territory.

Biden pointed to the fact that while the United States has provided Ukraine with the highly effective HIMARS mobile rocket systems, it has not been offered the longer-range munitions that go with those systems, which include ATACMS.

No NATO country has sent fighter jets to Ukraine, which is perhaps the most contentious part of any discussion about what weapons to give Ukraine.

They are still under consideration, say three people familiar with the discussions. Whether that means American fighter jets or Soviet-origin fighters like the Mig-29 is a key part of the conversation. The United States could ask a country like Poland to donate Mig-29s to Ukraine and fill Poland with American jets.

Sending US fighter jets directly to Ukraine makes little sense, the congressional official said, because there is little air-to-air combat, Ukrainian pilots are not trained on them, and they require heavy maintenance.

Then there’s the question of how it would affect Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s calculus amid fears he could use a nuclear weapon.

“Are we pouring escalation measures that could be tolerated by Putin into a bucket that overflows at some point? another person familiar with the discussions asked. “How much is in that bucket right now? And how much volume do you propose to add to it? These are things that American intelligence and defense officials are constantly trying to figure out.”

Ukrainian officials are growing frustrated with the administration’s general escalation fears, pointing out that they could have already used HIMARS – the most advanced US system in Ukraine to date – to strike Russian territory, but did not.

“This is really bullshit, what kind of escalation?” asked the Ukrainian official. “They drop a nuclear bomb, or what are we afraid of? This, I do not understand.

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