MQ-9 Reapers Offered To Ukraine For $1, But Relevancy Questions Remain
The sale price is very attractive, but what the drones could bring to the fight remains dubious and there will be millions in other costs.
General Atomics has offered to sell the Ukrainian government two of its flagship MQ-9 Reaper drones. While the idea of also sending the company’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle to Ukraine has been floated a number of times since Russia’s all-out invasion began, it remains unclear exactly how valuable either type’s contributions could be considering their vulnerability when operating in contested airspace.
In a report published by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which is worth its own read, the outlet revealed that it had obtained information about the General Atomics offering by reviewing “a letter.” The overall proposal, which was made by General Atomics Chief Executive Officer Linden Blue, would sell Kyiv two company-owned MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and a ground control station to operate them from a disparate location for just $1. However, if accepted, WSJ said Kyiv would still have to pay about $10 million in preparation and shipping costs to get the Reapers to Ukraine, and around an additional $8 million each following year to maintain and sustain the drones.
The U.S. government would have to approve the sale of two Reapers to Kyiv should it take General Atomics up on its offer. WSJ said it reached out to both The White House and the Ukrainian government for more information, but both declined to comment. Moreover, WSJ was in touch with General Atomics, too, but since starting this article, the company has released a full statement written by Blue explaining the company’s reasoning behind the offer.
“The world has reacted in almost unanimous support for the Ukrainian cause, but those efforts have overlooked one of the most obvious and force-multiplying technologies of modern warfare: Long-range and enduring, stand-off sensing, unmanned aircraft systems,” wrote Blue.
“We have delivered more than 1,000 aircraft over 30 years and flown nearly eight million flight hours, most of them in hostile areas around the world. This is all we do. We know that introducing these systems to the battlefield will provide an immediate impact,” Blue continued. “We have offered to train Ukrainian operators on these systems at no cost to U.S. taxpayers or the Ukrainian government. We have offered flexible options and recommendations for delivery. We have discussed the situation endlessly at every level of the U.S. federal government, and with many international partners.”
Blue also explains, in reference to the $1 price tag on the potential exchange, that the preparation and shipping costs as well as those associated with “setting up operations in [Ukraine], obtaining satellite bandwidth, and providing additional supporting labor” are out of General Atomics’ control. He added that the estimates published by WSJ do not include “a penny of profit” to the company.
General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper is a multi-mission, turboprop-powered attack and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) drone that first took to the skies over two decades ago. It has an endurance of between 27 hours and roughly 40 hours, depending on the configuration. It can travel at speeds of 240 knots, can operate up to 50,000 feet, and has a 3,850-pound payload capacity that includes 3,000 pounds of external stores.
These can include weapons like the AGM-114 Hellfire, GBU-12 Paveway laser-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), and more, as well as a huge range of podded systems. These pods can support enhanced surveillance, electronic warfare, and survivability upgrades, as well as expanded magazine depth and even battle management and communications tasks.
Reaper is larger than its cousin, the U.S. Army's MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and can carry a heavier payload. Both Reapers and Gray Eagles are designed to allow their operators to monitor and target enemies while providing data back to their corresponding ground control stations, which can be located beyond line-of-sight literally halfway around the world. They can also be operated using within line-of-sight datalinks and communications architectures.
Because of the systems’ combat versatility and proven experience in theaters like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, the idea of sending Reaper or Gray Eagle to Ukraine has been a hot topic of discussion since the latest stage of the conflict erupted last February. Ukraine has made notable use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, for example, leading some to believe that Reapers and Gray Eagles would be the logical next step. But others, including Ukraine’s own combat pilots, aren’t so sure this would be practical, and for good reason.
While variants of the Reaper have provided both the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force — as well as international customers like the U.K., Italy, France, Spain, and the Netherlands — with a reliable and persistent ISR and strike capability for years, the drone’s vulnerabilities have nonetheless been highlighted in recent years. This is due to various reasons, the most prominent of which is that slower, easily detectable drones operating at medium and higher altitudes are at significant risk of being detected by robust enemy air defense systems. The Reaper and Gray Eagle were really designed to operate in lower-risk, relatively permissible combat environments. The battlefield in Ukraine is neither of those things.
Russia has employed a dense multi-layer air defense umbrella that reaches relatively deep into airspace over territory that Ukraine controls. Aircraft operating at altitudes — especially slow and unmaneuverable ones — within this threat envelope are at risk of being engaged in some capacity. This would make it challenging for Reaper and Gray Eagle to safely get to the target areas necessary to leverage their ISR and strike capabilities, which would render the systems somewhat irrelevant, at least in regards to being able to perform their core mission sets.
A Ukrainian combat pilot whose callsign is "Juice" spoke to how this reality would affect Gray Eagle specifically in this past War Zone feature, saying the drone can only really be used “for reconnaissance” and “at large distances" and “not for attack missions because for attack missions you need to be closer [to the enemy].” He added, “It’s a very capable platform … but as for me it’s very dangerous to use it just on the front line. It’s not Afghanistan here.” With that, it isn’t difficult to see how the same could apply to Reaper even outside of an attack scenario.
Another Ukrainian aviator going by his callsign "Moonfish" noted how, despite their initial success with Bayraktar TB2 drones, Ukrainian forces ultimately decided to scale back operations with the aircraft as Russia’s air defenses grew, which doesn’t bode well for Reapers or Gray Eagles. “[Bayraktar TB2 drones] were very useful and important in the very first days,” Moonfish said, referencing how the drones were helpful in stopping columns of Russian armored vehicles and troops heading toward Kyiv. Still, once Russia built up more sophisticated air defenses, he said TB2s became “almost useless."
Both Reaper and Gray Eagle are also worth millions of dollars and are equipped with some sensitive electronics that could be at risk for exploitation if shot down and captured by Russian forces. Still, these aircraft have been lost before and parts have fallen into the hands of enemy actors, so the technological risk is unlikely to be seen as extreme, but may still be a consideration.
As noted earlier, there have been some strides made in making the Reapers and Gray Eagles more survivable by bolting on pods that can help protect them from enemy actions. This includes electronic warfare types and especially a dedicated self-protection pod. But considering how dense and far-reaching Russia’s counter-air umbrella is along the front lines, it's questionable if these systems would be able to ‘buy back’ enough proximity to relevant mission areas to make the drones highly useful. And, of course, there would still be a risk, regardless.
This is not to say that Reapers and Gray Eagles would be totally useless, though. They could potentially provide some other benefits, such as standoff electronic warfare support and intelligence gathering in less contested areas under certain circumstances. They could also act as a communications node. Their ability to deploy western standoff guided weapons, like Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) could also be useful, but even if launched from high altitude, a Reaper would have to be a few dozen miles from its target to execute an SDB strike.
This may be possible without extreme risk using coordinated tactics in certain areas, including suppression of enemy air defenses and electronic warfare, during a strike operation, but similar effects could be had using guided artillery without all the risk and complexity. And, as noted earlier, these aircraft would still be expensive assets to maintain. With just two in inventory, it’s questionable if acquiring the pair would be a good use of Ukraine’s precious resources.
Regardless, General Atomics seems staunch in its offer to send two Reapers to Ukraine if the U.S. government approves the sale, and their offer appears to be generous.
“Our goal is now, and has always been, to help the Ukrainian armed forces defend and protect their homes and families, and help bring a rapid closure to this conflict before more lives are lost,” Blue concluded in his statement. “There are limits to what an American defense company can do to support a situation such as this. From our perspective, it is long past time to enable Ukrainian forces with the information dominance required to win this war.”
It will certainly be interesting to see how this sale pans out if Ukraine is to accept.
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