WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is pushing the Biden administration to transfer advanced MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones that can carry Hellfire missiles to Ukraine.
Sixteen Senate Republicans and Democrats — many of whom sit on the Armed Services Committee — sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday, objecting to “press reporting“ that the Pentagon has opted not to send the drones to Kyiv and pressing him for more information.
“This particular [Unmanned Aerial System] will increase Ukraine’s unmanned capabilities in the near-term and demands careful reconsideration,” the group, led by Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., wrote. “Most importantly, armed [Unmanned Aerial Systems] could find and attack Russian warships in the Black Sea, breaking its coercive blockade and alleviate dual pressures on the Ukrainian economy and global food prices.”
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, also signed onto the letter.
The MQ-1C Gray Eagles, made by General Atomics, can hold up to four Hellfire Missiles and have a 29,000 foot service ceiling.
Pentagon officials have been mulling Ukraine’s request for the system since at least April, but it’s hung up over concerns about securing the technology as well as its survivability in the contested airspace above Ukraine. The Defense Department has been reviewing a potential transfer for months, and a bipartisan group of 17 House lawmakers pushed Austin to expedite that review in a September letter.
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the Defense Department decided not to transfer the Gray Eagle drones due to concerns that their ability to strike Russian territory could prompt Moscow to escalate tensions with NATO.
The Pentagon maintains that it has not yet reached a final decision.
“We have to examine what impact it would have on us, and specifically the Army,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said at a briefing on Tuesday. “But nothing has been ruled out.”
CNN reported last week that the Defense Department is studying potential modifications to the Gray Eagle drones that would lessen the concern about technology falling into Russian hands should the U.S. send them to Ukraine.
“While U.S. technology security merits appropriate attention to transfer risks, the platform’s adaptability enables the swapping of advanced U.S.-specific sensors for alternatives vetted for transfer to allies and partners,” the senators wrote in the letter.
Although the U.S. has never exported Gray Eagle drones, the letter states that the “weapon system configurations for the MQ-1C, specifically AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, have been reviewed and exported to over 25 U.S. partners.”
The senators set a Nov. 30 deadline for Austin to respond. The letter also asks him to outline the operational advantages Ukraine would gain from Gray Eagle drones, identify the potential for conflict escalation with Russia and detail how the Pentagon can mitigate the sensitive technology transfer risks.
The U.S. has sent Ukraine other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems including AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma and Boeing Insitu ScanEagle drones, as well as AeroVironment’s Switchblade loitering munitions. Ukraine also has extensively used Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 drones.
Meanwhile, Iran has exported drones to Russia for use against Ukraine and dispatched trainers to Crimea to teach the Russians to use them.
Joe Gould contributed to this report.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.