With geofenced drones, the West can aid Ukraine without escalating the war with Russia. It should. Reporting on the ground this fall, I witnessed first-hand Ukraine’s incredible comeback in its war against Russia. In November, I also witnessed Russia’s merciless missile attack against civilian infrastructure in Kyiv.
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While my building lost electricity and heat, my apartment at least had gas and running water. That was not the case for a local hospital, where a friend was being treated for injuries sustained during the strike. Staff worked by diesel generators to deliver lifesaving aid in “dire” conditions. Think open-heart surgery being administered to children by flashlight, as seen here.
I realized that night: Ukraine’s comeback was achieved on the ground, but it can only be sustained in the air – specifically by tools that intercept the kinds of missile attacks that plunged Kyiv into darkness last month.
So it was all the more frustrating to know my country, the United States, has refused advanced drones for Ukraine – for example, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle – out of desire to avoid escalation with Russia. The decision came in November and was in keeping with ones made by the Biden Administration earlier in the war to deny Ukraine aged A-10 Warthogs and or the transfer of Polish F-16s.
But airpower for Ukraine does not automatically equate to escalation. And unlike manned aircraft, there are built-in safeguards for drones to ensure this is the case.
The Gray Eagle, for example, can be “fenced-in” by programming the UAV’s flight computer before delivery to Ukrainian forces. Flights can be restricted to specific areas and prevented from areas (for example, the Russian-Ukrainian border). Geo-fencing the aircraft’s flight computer settings could also factor in the range of onboard munitions to prevent attacks on Russian territory.
Ukrainian pilots and sensor operators could be qualified for operations in less than a month. Experienced, English-speaking crews are available. And some western companies have volunteered to conduct the training at their own expense.
How would such assets protect civilians? Western UAV platforms can shoot down the kinds of munitions Russia has used to terrorize Ukraine’s skies at a time when Kyiv’s anti-air assets are rapidly dwindling.
Returning once more to the Gray Eagle, this platform, paired with AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire Missiles, would offer thirty hours on station and thirty hours of vigilant defense against airborne threats. It can also detect the kinds of low-flying drones Russia has launched at Ukrainian cities much before ground-based radars, affording a wider tracking window when time is of the essence.
The US can be confident in the battlefield advantages such aid would bring. In nine months of war, Ukrainian forces have pulled off a stunning string of strikes against high-value targets using Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. These successes include a diversionary flight that helped sink Russia’s guided missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet — and Russia’s most significant warship loss since World War II.
But while tools like the Bayraktar have confirmed the worth of unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefields of Ukraine, that platform pales in comparison to western capabilities, which can fly faster, farther, and with greater payload and a superior sensor suite than its Turkish counterpart.
To those with grave concerns about escalation, those fears are understandable at a certain distance. Conflict between two major powers would cause even more widespread devastation and suffering. But supplying adjusted airpower assets to Ukraine doesn’t equate to escalation between Russia and the west. And the on-the-ground reality is that Russia is escalating this conflict already, irrespective of which weapon systems the west delivers to Ukraine. And non-combatants are paying the price.
As retired Air Force General Dave Deptula wrote, “Ending this senseless Russian violence as fast as possible on terms acceptable to the Ukrainian people should be what matters most.” The west has a chance to significantly aid that goal by enabling prudent, geofenced airpower.
Ukrainian forces have made heroic and significant strides against Russia this fall. Despite ongoing air attacks on Ukrainian civilians, my months of firsthand reporting have convinced me that Ukraine can win this war if Kyiv is given the weaponry it pleads for.
Caleb Larson is a multiformat journalist and defense writer based in Berlin but has spent most of 2022 reporting from Ukraine. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, with a focus on American foreign policy and European security. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.