Home » Will Biden Sell Advanced Drones to Ukraine?

Will Biden Sell Advanced Drones to Ukraine?

It’s been a grand two years for the war industry. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the perceived scent of Vladimir Putin’s blood emanating from the Kremlin, and hyped-up tensions with China have all converged to accelerate the already fierce pace of U.S. military spending, weapons sales and defense contracts. The appetite for more powerful armaments and advanced technologies, engulfed in an atmosphere of insatiable “must-have” thinking in Washington, D.C., has heralded a new golden age for the manufacturers of war. At times, Congress has allocated billions of dollars more in defense authorizations than the record-shattering budgets requested by the president. In addition to direct sales for Ukraine, the war industry is getting showered with contracts to replace the weapons that the Pentagon is transferring from its own stockpiles to Kyiv. The White House this week officially requested nearly $40 billion in new aid to Ukraine to fight its war against Russia’s invasion, which would — in a single piece of legislation — double the total amount of overt military aid allocated to Kyiv by the U.S. since Joe Biden took office. It is no coincidence that the defense industry is on track to spend less money lobbying the federal government than at any point since the initial years of the Iraq War. Business is booming.

It is no coincidence that the defense industry is on track to spend less money lobbying the federal government than at any point since the initial years of the Iraq War.

The flow of weapons and other military aid to Ukraine has widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, though some top Republicans have indicated that they are going to exert more scrutiny over the spending once they take control of the House of Representatives next year. There has been almost no dissent within the Democratic Party on the administration’s stance. The kerfuffle in October over the withdrawn letter from the Congressional Progressive Caucus to Biden “that attempted to gingerly open a conversation about a potential diplomatic end to Russia’s war on Ukraine” dramatized how little room there is within the party for alternative views.

Since Russia launched its invasion in February, the only consequential debates on support for Ukraine have revolved around whether the U.S. and NATO should get more directly involved in confronting Moscow (which Biden has consistently rejected) and, in specific cases, whether the U.S. should give Ukraine sensitive defense technology and weapons systems. The Ukraine war has presented the defense industry the opportunity to have its latest innovations tested on a real battlefield against a powerful nation-state, with the added perceived geopolitical bonus of significantly degrading the war capabilities and stockpiles of Russia, a country the U.S. has, once again, declared its arch-nemesis. At the same time, the Pentagon has expressed clear reservations about how high up the proprietary defense technology chain this trend should extend.

“There needs to be an assessment, as the U.S. has increased the kinds of weapons it’s providing [Ukraine]: Will it appreciatively change the situation on the battlefield in the Ukrainian’s favor and are the risks to that in terms of Putin’s perceptions manageable?” said Matt Duss, a longtime foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then they [Ukraine] will probably get them.” Duss added that he thinks “the Biden people have been smart about how Putin interprets U.S. actions.”

Over the past several months, a quiet battle has been simmering in Washington over whether the Biden administration should permit Ukraine to purchase what would be the most sophisticated weaponized drone deployed to date in the war against Russia’s invasion, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle. Capable of firing four high-powered Hellfire missiles or eight Stinger munitions, the unofficial successor to the widely used Predator drone has been deployed in U.S. counterterrorism missions in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, particularly under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones, the U.S. has never approved the export of the Gray Eagle, even to its allies. It would require sign-off from a number of government bodies, including regulators at the State and Defense Departments.

In addition to its substantial weapons payload, the Gray Eagle has sophisticated reconnaissance and intelligence technology and can remain airborne for more than 24 hours. This has made it an ideal weapon for sustained monitoring of structures that are believed to house “high-value targets” or for conducting long-range attacks in undeclared war zones or “denied areas” without the need to use warplanes, sea-launched cruise missiles, or ground troops.

But the war in Ukraine is being fought in stark contrast to the “targeted killing” operations utilized in the so-called war on terrorism where the U.S. was engaged in asymmetric warfare, mostly against non-nation-state actors. Both Ukraine and Russia possess and regularly utilize weaponized drones in battle, though the models they possess are several tiers below the quality and lethality of the premiere systems used repeatedly by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Ukraine has used Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, which are a much cheaper and far more vulnerable version of the top-level U.S. drones, such as Reapers, Predators, and Gray Eagles. While the Bayraktar’s capabilities and potential firepower are inferior to its U.S. analogs, Ukraine has used the drone to great effect against Russian forces, particularly early in the conflict against logistical supply routes and artillery positions.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is using drones to conduct operations that even vaguely resemble the much-vaunted (and often highly exaggerated U.S. claims of) “surgical” strikes against individual “high-value targets.” Russia, in particular, is using drones indiscriminately and has employed swarms of single-use “kamikaze” drones that detonate when the drone, packed with explosives, crashes into a target or structure. In September, Russia began deploying Iranian-made Shahed-136 single-use drones to conduct such attacks against Ukrainian targets, including civilian infrastructure. Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelenskyy recently claimed that Moscow secretly purchased from Iran as many as 2,400 of the drones, which cost $20,000 each and fly low enough to evade most radar systems. He offered no evidence to support the alleged number of drones, saying it was “according to our intelligence.” In contrast, John Kirby, the communications coordinator for the U.S. National Security Council, alleged on October 21 that Russia has acquired “dozens of [unmanned aerial vehicles] so far” from Iran “and will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future.” Iran has acknowledged selling Moscow the drones, though it claims they were not equipped with munitions and were delivered before the invasion. Iran denies that it has continued to supply them. The U.S. Treasury Department recently announced new sanctions against Iranian and Emirati businesses it claims are involved with the alleged shipments.

Defense analysts have speculated that Russia turned to Tehran for drones because its own supply had been severely degraded by Ukrainian attacks and because it has not invested in developing sophisticated weapons systems like those used by the U.S. “Despite previously seeking to become a significant drone power, Moscow has been sluggish to prioritize its UAVs development,” noted Francesco Salesio Schiavi in a recent report for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. Schiavi wrote: “In eight months of active combat, the Russian UAVs fleet has been decimated by Ukrainian countermeasures, and its reserves of expensive long-range cruise missiles have declined sharply. The reconstruction of these arsenals will probably take years for Moscow to reach pre-war levels again, especially given the restrictions placed on Russian access to foreign-made, high-tech components necessary for this purpose. At this stage, Tehran’s support represents an ideal interim solution for rapidly deploying relatively cheap UAVs until new supplies or a new generation of missiles and combat drones are available to the Kremlin.”

The U.S. has provided Ukraine with its own versions of the kamikaze drones. The Switchblade, which has been used by the U.S. Army and Marines, can fit in a backpack and is capable of small-scale attacks against personnel, vehicles, and small aircraft. Ukraine has received 700 Switchblades, which are essentially a small remote-controlled missile, modeled after the Javelin surface-to-air warhead. The U.S. has also delivered at least 1,800 Phoenix Ghost “suicide” drones to Ukraine, which function similarly to the Switchblades. In addition to small weaponized drones, Washington has provided Kyiv with Puma and ScanEagle drones for surveillance and reconnaissance. Ukraine has also used U.S.-supplied underwater sea drones in attacks on Russian naval vessels.

While the Shahed-136 drones can only carry 80 to 90 pounds of explosives, the $10 million Gray Eagle is a far more expensive and sophisticated system capable of repeated use at far greater range than any unmanned system in the Ukraine war. It could theoretically enable Ukraine to conduct strikes deep into Russian territory. The Gray Eagle’s manufacturer, General Atomics, has made no secret of its desire to send the drones to Ukraine. “If you think HIMARS [the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] changed things, put some Gray Eagles in the air and see what happens next,” said General Atomics spokesperson C. Mark Brinkley. “No one wants to see the significant gains made by the Ukrainians erode due to inaction.”

The Biden administration and the Pentagon have, to date, declined to authorize the sale of the drones to Ukraine, citing concerns that if one was to go down, its sophisticated technology, including the Multi-Spectral Targeting System manufactured by Raytheon, could fall into Russian hands. The Biden administration also has expressed concerns that Russia’s air defenses are more advanced than what the drones have faced in the U.S. counterterrorism operations where the targets are not soldiers of a massive and well-funded nation-state. General Atomics said it had offered detailed responses to “repeated concerns about technology transfer” from the Pentagon. Among these was a proposal to retrofit the Gray Eagles by swapping out some technological systems for less sensitive ones before Ukraine takes possession. The company also said it has laid out “options for increased battlefield survivability.”

Over the summer, it appeared that the White House was leaning toward authorizing the sale of four Gray Eagles, with Reuters reporting on June 1 that the administration had actually signed off on the transfer and “intends to notify Congress of the potential sale to Ukraine in the coming days with a public announcement expected after that.” But two weeks later, the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration, the body responsible for reviewing foreign weapons sales for potential risks to U.S. security, halted the process over concerns about compromising sensitive technology.

The Biden administration and the Pentagon have declined to authorize the sale of Gray Eagle drones to Ukraine, citing concerns that if one was to go down, its sophisticated technology could fall into Russian hands.

On September 21, a bipartisan group of 17 lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging him to expedite the transfer of the Gray Eagles to Kyiv. “There continue to be delays in delivering Gray Eagle systems to Ukraine despite urgent requests from Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov and ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova,” they asserted. “While important, thorough risk assessments and mitigation should not come at the expense of Ukrainian lives.” The lawmakers, led by Democrats Marcy Kaptur and Mike Quigley and Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick and Andy Harris, argued that “Ukraine could better confront Russian threats” with armed drones “like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle or the MQ-9A Reaper.” General Atomics has also aggressively lobbied for the drones to be given to Ukraine, with its spokesperson denouncing what he called an “endless wait-and-see response” from the administration. General Atomics said it had offered to train Ukrainian personnel on how to operate the drones at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.

For its part, Ukraine has continued to press its case with the White House; its defense minister wrote a letter on November 2 reiterating Kyiv’s desire to buy four of the drones. On November 9, the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was not budging, saying the White House was concerned that the sale of the drones “could escalate the conflict and signal to Moscow that the U.S. was providing weapons that could target positions inside Russia.” This stance is reminiscent of that taken by the White House in March when Ukraine sought to obtain as many as 28 MiG-29 warplanes from Poland, and the White House vacillated before ultimately killing the deal.

Several members of Congress, General Atomics, and the Ukrainian government continue to lobby the Biden administration to change course, and their only hope appears to rest on whether the White House would allow the sales to proceed with a modified version of the Gray Eagle. “There are specific and very technical tweaks and neutering that can be done to these that may make it possible in the nearer term,” an unnamed congressional official told CNN on November 14. “But those things take time and are fairly complex.” The administration has indicated that the final word will come from Austin.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said the Pentagon’s stance on the risks to its technology is “yet another indication of U.S. foreign and security policy stuck in Cold War thinking. It’s also another example of post-Cold War disinterest in international law.” The U.S. “advantage or edge in military might and weapons technology depends on staying ahead of competitors. That never happens,” she added. “China has a far larger standing military. Every military now has drones. The Russians will get the MQ-1C technology whether the U.S. provides it to Ukraine or not. Weapons technology does not remain secret — it just fuels arms races.” China recently exhibited its new Wing Loong-3 drone, which it is marketing as a competitor to the Gray Eagle. State media outlets in China have reported that the drone can carry up to 16 missiles and other munitions. The U.S. drone industry has lamented what some analysts charge is a de facto U.S. policy of ceding the export market to China, Turkey, and other drone merchants.

“Weapons technology does not remain secret — it just fuels arms races.”

New York Times reporter Lara Jakes recently published a deep dive into how “Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems, and new ways to use them, that Western political officials and military commanders predict could shape warfare for generations to come.” Jakes quoted the remarks of Ukraine’s vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, at an October NATO conference in Virginia. “Ukraine is the best test ground, as we have the opportunity to test all hypotheses in battle and introduce revolutionary change in military tech and modern warfare,” Fedorov said. “In the last two weeks, we have been convinced once again the wars of the future will be about maximum drones and minimal humans.” In his video address, Fedorov called drones “a game changer of ongoing war,” adding that “by massively using them, Ukraine can win faster and save more lives of our people.” He highlighted Ukraine’s initiative, “Army of Drones,” announced in July, with an aim “to secure the entire frontline of 2,470 kilometers with [surveillance] drones.”

Drone warfare has come a long way since the United States launched a Hellfire missile from a CIA Predator drone in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the first night of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” While that strike, intended to hit Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, failed, it holds a place in history as the opening salvo in what swiftly became a global race to develop and deploy weaponized drones. A month later, on November 2, 2001, the CIA conducted its first drone strike outside a declared battlefield, hitting a vehicle in Yemen and killing six suspected Al Qaeda members, one of whom was a U.S. citizen. Today, more than three dozen countries are in possession of armed drones, and they have been used widely in several conflicts. Azerbaijan made extensive use of them in its 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia, and Syria has used them against Kurdish rebels in Syria. The Islamic State has also used its own improvised drones in Iraq and Syria.

At the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States opened a spigot through which billions of dollars in lethal military hardware and assistance has been funneled to Kyiv. Russian officials often say they are not just fighting Ukraine’s forces but also “NATO infrastructure.” Since Biden took office, the U.S. has given Ukraine nearly $19 billion in overt military aid, including tanks, drones, remote-controlled boats, radar systems, surveillance technology, a vast supply of guns and ammunition, and virtually every other tool of modern warfare. The Biden administration has, broadly speaking, received widespread support for its Ukraine stance with congressional opposition to the massive military aid packages largely relegated to a few dozen lawmakers, mostly Trump-aligned Republicans.

On Tuesday, the White House requested more than $37 billion in additional support for Ukraine, more than $21 billion of it earmarked for military and intelligence operations. “Together, with strong, bipartisan support in the Congress, we have provided significant assistance that has been critical to Ukraine’s success on the battlefield — and we cannot let that support run dry,” the administration wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on November 15. If passed, the package would more than double the total military aid to Ukraine since February. Biden may try to push it through during the lame-duck session before Republicans assume control of the House. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has pledged to end the “blank-check” policy toward Ukraine, which he later said meant that the Republicans would impose greater oversight and accountability for the expenditures.

“Defense spending is somewhere where austerity just seems never to apply. We can’t seem to pay for Americans’ education, we can’t get people health care. Yet a constantly escalating defense budget goes through every year with relatively little turbulence. That itself is a condemnation of our political system,” said Duss, the former Sanders adviser. A longtime critic of U.S. militarism, Duss has nonetheless been an outspoken proponent of sending military aid to Ukraine. He said he recognizes “the policy I support continues to enrich defense contractors, enriches the military-industrial complex,” but added, “I think the goal of reforming that military industrial complex and weakening its power over our politics, that project continues in the longer term even though the policy I support in the shorter term is essentially paying them off.”

While the Biden administration has dramatically scaled back U.S. drone attacks in comparison to Obama and Trump, it continues to use them in so-called targeted strikes. There have been at least 12 drone strikes in Somalia in 2022 alone. Early in his presidency, Biden authorized a strike in Afghanistan that wiped out a civilian family in Kabul on August 29, 2021. He also used a drone strike to assassinate Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in July.

The administration recently concluded a review of lethal counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes, and reportedly reversed several of the Trump-era changes that loosened rules for conducting such attacks. While the document has not been made public, the New York Times reported that Biden largely returned to the Obama-era structures for assessing potential civilian consequences of strikes and implemented a requirement that Biden personally approve the adding of alleged terror targets on the U.S. kill list.


November 2022