US plans to sell armed drones to Ukraine in coming days

The plan to sell armed drones to Ukraine can still fall through by being blocked by Congress or in a last-minute policy reversal.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, US, June 25, 2015. (photo credit: US AIR FORCE/SENIOR AIRMAN CORY D. PAYNE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, US, June 25, 2015.
(photo credit: US AIR FORCE/SENIOR AIRMAN CORY D. PAYNE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The Biden administration plans to sell Ukraine four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles for battlefield use against Russia, three people familiar with the situation said.

The sale of the General Atomics-made drones could still be blocked by Congress, the sources said, adding that there is also a risk of a last-minute policy reversal that could scuttle the plan, which has been under review at the Pentagon for several weeks.

Ukraine has been using several types of smaller shorter range unmanned aerial systems against Russian forces that invaded the country in late February. They include the AeroVironment AVAV.O RQ-20 Puma AE, and the Turkish Bayraktar-TB2.

But the Gray Eagle represents a leap in technology because it can fly up to 30 or more hours depending on its mission and can gather huge amounts of data for intelligence purposes. Gray Eagles, the Army's version of the more widely known Predator drone, can also carry up to eight powerful Hellfire missiles.

The sale is significant because it puts an advanced reusable US system capable of multiple deep strikes on the battlefield against Russia for the first time.

 Pensioner Gennady Ivanov, 83, sits outside a residential building heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 30, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO) Pensioner Gennady Ivanov, 83, sits outside a residential building heavily damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine May 30, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

The administration of President Joe Biden intends to notify Congress of the potential sale to Ukraine in the coming days with a public announcement expected after that, a US official said.

A White House spokesperson referred inquiries to the Pentagon and a Pentagon spokesperson said there was "nothing to announce."

Funds for Ukraine

Money from the recently passed $40 billion Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative has been set aside to fund both the possible sale and the training needed for the drones, the US official and one of the people familiar said. Read full story

"Generally the MQ-1C is a much larger aircraft with a max take-off weight around three times that of the Bayraktar-TB2, with commensurate advantages in payload capacity, range, and endurance," said drone expert Dan Gettinger with the Vertical Flight Society.

The MQ-1C is also compatible with a greater variety of munitions than the Bayraktar-TB2. The Ukrainian Bayraktars are equipped with 22 kg (48 pounds) Turkish-made MAM-L missiles, around half the weight of a Hellfire.

Training on the UAV system made by General Atomics usually takes months, Gettinger said, but a national plan to train experienced Ukrainian maintainers and operators in a handful of weeks has been proposed in recent weeks, the sources said.

Arming the drones with Hellfire missiles will be done via a future Presidential Drawdown Authority once training on the drones has been completed, the US official and one of the sources said.

Up until an announcement on Wednesday that Ukraine would get four HIMARS rocket systems, the Pentagon has stressed that smaller systems such as Javelin anti-tank systems and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which allies are shipping to Ukraine via truck near-daily, are most useful.

Raytheon Technologies RTX.N and Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N jointly produce Javelins, while Raytheon makes Stingers.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that US plans to sell Ukraine four MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles for battlefield use against Russia would not change the parameters of what Moscow calls its military operation.

"Pumping (Western) weapons into Ukraine does not change all the parameters of the special operation."

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov

"Pumping (Western) weapons into Ukraine does not change all the parameters of the special operation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. "Its goals will be achieved, but this will bring more suffering to Ukraine..."