Two Ukrainian Air Force pilots, who recently spoke with The War Zone and other media outlets, have dismissed the value of a proposed sale of U.S.-made General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed drones to their country. They also said much-lauded Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aircraft have become virtually useless in the face of more robust Russian air defenses and made clear that they are more interested in any plan that gets them closer to flying more modern Western fighter jets, like American-made F-16s. Their comments appear to point to a broader debate now ongoing between frontline pilots and senior leadership over priorities when it comes to bolstering Ukraine's aerial combat capacity.
The pair of Ukrainian aviators in question agreed to speak to members of the press on the condition that only their callsigns, Juice and Moonfish, would be used instead of their real names and that the locations that they were speaking from would not be disclosed. The War Zone has been in contact with Juice in the past, including for a previous feature interview about the state of the air war over Ukraine since Russia invaded back in Febraury, which you can find here.
Gray Eagle drones 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],” Juice said, citing the current threats posed by Russian air defenses, especially in the eastern Donbas region. “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."
"My opinion is knowing the Russian air defense right now and knowing the range of the missiles that Gray Eagle carries, I give you [a] 90 percent chance that it [the MQ-1C] would be shot down in the very first sortie, if it would be a strike sortie," Moonfish agreed.
It was first reported earlier this month that U.S. President Joe Biden's administration was looking to move forward in authorizing the sale of four MQ-1Cs to Ukraine, as you can read about here. The expectation has been that the complete package would also include AGM-114 Hellfire precision-guided missiles, among other things. In April, Ukrainian officials had disclosed that they had been in direct contact with General Atomics about the potential acquisition of Gray Eagles or other armed drones the company makes. The California-headquartered defense contractor had said it had unmanned aircraft ready for transfer if the U.S. government approval was forthcoming.
"We are not advocating for the Gray Eagle," Moonfish said bluntly.
Moonfish and Juice both said that the extensive threats now posed by Russian air defenses have already forced the Ukrainian military to dramatically scale back its use of TB2 armed drones.
“They were very useful and important in the very first days, stopping those columns [of Russian armored vehicles and troops heading toward the capital Kyiv], but now that they’ve built up good air defenses, they’re almost useless," Moonfish said.
TB2s are still being employed for "some special operations, including attack missions," according to Juice, "but, in very rare situations and in exact conditions."
“Another point is that Bayraktar is much cheaper… Gray Eagle is pretty expensive," he added. This might suggest there could be a greater willingness to employ these Turkish drones even if MQ-1Cs made their way to Ukraine.
A third Ukrainian officer, speaking alongside Juice and Moonfish on the condition of total anonymity, further said that Ukrainian ground forces commanders see no functional differences between what an MQ-1C might provide on the battlefield over the capabilities they have now thanks to U.S-supplied Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions offer them now. This is despite the fact that the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost are man-portable systems that are in a completely different category in every respect from the Gray Eagle, but they still deliver a small kinetic payload over relatively short distances.
It's worth noting that the U.S. Army has reached many of the same conclusions about the MQ-1C's ability to survive even in environments with relatively limited threats. The U.S. Air Force has been looking to move away from the MQ-9 Reaper, the Gray Eagle's larger cousin, for the same reasons. Both services, together with General Atomics, are now exploring various new concepts of operation that would allow these unmanned aircraft to continue to play useful roles in future higher-end conflicts, as you can read more about here.
The War Zone's own Tyler Rogoway had outlined many of these issues on Twitter back in April when it had first emerged that Ukrainian officials were in talks with General Atomics. He did point out that drones like the older MQ-1 Predator, another General Atomics product, could still have some value when operating away from the forward edge of the battlefield and were far more expendable than their newer cousins.
Whether or not a sale of U.S. MQ-1Cs to Ukraine ultimately goes ahead remains to be seen. Last week, Politico reported that concerns about training and logistical issues could upend the deal, despite the U.S. government's increasing willingness to transfer more complex weapon systems, such as the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), to the Ukrainian armed forces. There may also be questions of technological security, especially if there is a significant risk that Russian forces might shoot down and gain insight into various elements of the Gray Eagle design and how it is employed. At the same time, MQ-1Cs, as well as MQ-9s and MQ-1 Predators, have come down in various foreign locales over the years, possibly easing any concerns about what useful intelligence there might be to glean from an MQ-1C wreck.
Beyond their specific opposition to the acquisition of the MQ-1C, Juice and Moonfish indicated that this is just one facet of a heated debate now ongoing within the Ukrainian military about how best to expand the country's air-to-air combat, close air support, and air defense capabilities.
Both pilots, as well as the third Ukrainian officer, did advocate for acquiring more modern combat jets, as well as additional air defense assets. The threat posed by Russian cruise missiles, and the difficulties Ukrainian forces have currently when it comes to tracking and engaging them, are key reasons for wanting to acquire these systems.
“We’re outnumbered by a lot, and [Russia is] attacking not only with aircraft but with missiles – ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, air to ground missiles,” Moonfish said. “They’re targeting fuel storages, grain storages, railroads, bridges.”
“It is close to impossible to have a radar lock of the cruise missile” when flying any of Ukraine's existing Soviet-era combat jets, he further noted. “In the latest cases, almost all the cases where we were able to shoot them down … was when the guys had infrared [search] lock on them. They have a heat signature of course, and that’s how we are able to do that.”
“We need suppression of enemy air defense capability,” according to Juice. "We need air-to-ground capability and the priority is air-to-air capability."
Juice and Moonfish called for the establishment of a training program to at least start preparing Ukrainian pilots to fly some type of more modern Western fighter aircraft. Moonfish highlighted how the Ukrainain Air Force still has more pilots currently than aircraft, despite efforts to get additional Soviet-era jets in the country flying again. This is something Juice has pointed out to The War Zone in the past, as well.
"It’s one of our priorities to send young guys" for training on advanced U.S. fighter jets, Juice added while speaking together with Moonfish. "We have a lot of free hands … highly proficient and highly motivated personnel" to learn the "vocabulary" of U.S.-made fighters. "We have enough people to send the groups to study … to learn some new equipment.”
The two Ukrainian aviators stressed that sending these younger “next-gen” pilots for training on U.S. platforms would help speed up training times on advanced fighter jets, which normally takes up to a year. “We are ready to do it [train] more intensively,” Juice noted. “We will only send highly experienced guys. It’s not a problem to fly F-16s … it could be just a few days to learn how to control this platform."
Juice has made similar comments to The War Zone in the past about the speed at which Ukrainian pilots could learn to fly new aircraft, a sentiment that at least some elements of the Ukrainian Air Force's leadership appear to share, but this projected timeline remains highly optimistic. It's also not necessarily surprising that fighter pilots like Juice and Moonfish are more laser-focused on the prospect of trading in their aging Soviet-era jets.
Regardless, “we need to know for sure … which platform we are choosing," Moonfish said. "What’s the point in starting training on F-18s if we’re getting F-16s?"
Setting up a training pipeline for Ukrainian pilots to learn to fly more modern Western fighters is something The War Zone has previously noted would still be valuable even if new combat jets don't reach Ukraine before the current conflict comes to an end. Any realistic resolution to Russia's current war on Ukraine is highly unlikely to remove the specter of future fighting where new aircraft would be needed, and the Ukrainian military will need to rebuild regardless.
A key issue is that “there’s no good Air Force mind next to our chief of staff or commander who would say, speak up and say, hey, that’s B.S," Moonfish said about what he described as a push by the General Staff of the Ukrainain Armed Forces to prioritize purchasing things like the MQ-1C over new fighter jets.
How this debate ultimately plays out, and whether or not the Gray Eagle sale goes ahead for various reasons, very much remains to be seen.
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