The U.S. Must Signal Its Objective – and Begin to Plan – To Sustain Ukraine After This War
Any peace in the Ukraine war that allows a future resumption of Russian aggression is worthless. Diplomacy, economics, and most important, military provisions should constrain Russia from embarking on another campaign of grinding brutality. We must think ahead.
The potential transfer of 100 MQ-9 Reapers from American storage to Ukraine, beginning with General Atomics’ offer of two MQ-9s, does exactly that. It presents a matchless opportunity, not simply to transfer Ukraine a high-end combat system, but to transition the U.S.’ support model to one of long-term strategic sustainment. The Western enabling coalition can no longer provide piecemeal equipment transfers to Ukraine. It must instead consider Ukraine’s immediate and future requirements to deter and defeat Russian aggression. This necessitates the transfer of MQ-9s as an initial step, one that should be combined with the short-to-medium term transfer of fighter jets and long-range missiles to Ukraine and integrated into a decade-long plan to resurrect Ukraine’s defense industrial system. This will improve Ukrainian capabilities and invigorate immediate-term deterrence.
Even before Russia’s 24 February invasion, materiel assistance to Ukraine has been delivered in a haphazard fashion. The Western powers transferred whatever was at hand. First came a variety of anti-tank and anti-air weapons. Then came the legacy Soviet systems from NATO’s former Warsaw Pact members, including tanks, armored vehicles, and ammunition, and finally, modern Western equipment.
Buried in this story of arms transfers, which later included months of Western European hand-wringing over tank deliveries, is a startling fact: the West has transferred nearly every conceivably useful weapon to Ukraine at scale since its war with Russia began, bar two, fighter jets and long-range missiles. Poland dispatched around two-thirds of its active T-72 tank fleet to Ukraine in April 2022. Allegedly, Poland also delivered MiG-29 airframes to Ukraine as disassembled spares for its current fleet. In short, the West has delivered at scale nearly every weapon described as escalatory throughout this war barring—once again—fixed-wing fighters and long-range missiles.
Russia’s responses have not changed. Russia has not escalated against the West, barring its continuous nuclear threats and the Nord Stream Attacks and Shetland Cable Incident – both of which were likely Russian-executed. Indeed, Russia’s escalatory cycle is entirely de-linked from the West’s actions: Russia remains satisfied with the limited war’s current rules: as long as it refrains from strikes in NATO territory, the Atlantic Alliance will not enter the conflict actively.
Russia’s bet, however, is that the West will never rationalize its support for Ukraine. Escalatory fears will prevent NATO from providing common platforms and advanced systems to the Ukrainian military, blunting Ukrainian combat effectiveness. The more that logistical friction and Western fear reduce Ukrainian combat power, the less likely Ukraine’s 2023 offensives are to succeed, and the greater the likelihood that Russia convinces the West it is politically exhausted – despite not losing a single soldier or civilian to enemy fire, compared to the toll in blood and treasure that Ukraine continues to experience.
As it stands, the Kremlin’s bet is a partial success. Western support remains haphazard, piecemeal, and hostage to political irrationality. The recent tank debate demonstrates continued political misinterpretation. Germany insisted that the U.S. deliver M1 Abrams tanks alongside Leopard 2s, a militarily nonsensical move because a mixed tank fleet complicates Ukrainian sustainment, and a politically bizarre one with no benefits beyond demonstrating Olaf Scholz’s inability to resist diplomatic pressure over time. Once again, Ukraine receives a hodgepodge of systems, with only two benefits – the U.S. Abrams’ will not be delivered for some time, ensuring the Ukrainians can focus on the new Leopard fleet, and Ukraine now has a core of tanks that take NATO-standard 155mm ammunition.
It is here that the MQ-9 question becomes pointed. There are over 100 MQ-9s – Block 1 UCAVs, so not quite as capable as the top-line Block 5 “Predator Bs”, but still extraordinarily capable systems – that the U.S. Air Force has recently retired and plans to transfer to civilian agencies, a plan that Congress approved. These UCAVs, however, are ready to be shipped anywhere in the world immediately and could instead be transferred to Ukraine. General Atomics, the MQ-9’s manufacturer, has proposed an initial two-airframe transfer for $1 each to jump-start its integration into the Ukrainian military and demonstrate to Congress that a total 100 airframe set is a viable strategic option.
The whole set, meanwhile, requires $10 million to transport to Ukraine and another $8 million per year to sustain the MQ-9s. By comparison, an MQ-9 typically costs $5 million per unit, comparable in price to the Bayraktar TB2s of early-war fame – since the U.S. military would otherwise retire or transfer to civilian agencies these 100 MQ-9s anyway, an extraordinary discount is reasonable. Moreover, the U.S. has provided $8 billion of assistance to Ukraine in total, including a $1.7 billion tranche this fiscal year. Another $18 million is, in effect, a rounding error.
The issue, however, is one of strategic perspective. The early-war footage of Ukrainian TB2s chewing up Russian armored columns no longer illustrates combat dynamics. During the war’s first days, before Russian electronic warfare systems, air defenses, and fighter aircraft were deployed more effectively, an UCAV fleet was extraordinarily lethal. As Russia has adapted, all UAS have become more vulnerable. UAS remain crucial military tools. Small UAS, typically civilian quadcopter drones, operate within a few miles of the active front-line, identifying enemy units and at times engaging them with creatively-mounted mortar shells and grenades. Larger UAS, like the spotter UAS Orlan-10 and the true MALE UCAV TB2, penetrate farther into the enemy rear to guide long-range artillery fire.
Because these UAS are crucial for battlespace awareness and artillery spotting, they are high-priority targets for both Russian and Ukrainian electronic systems, short-range air defenses, and where relevant, fixed-wing aircraft. UAS of all varieties experience 80-90% attrition. An MQ-9 is more capable than any Ukrainian UCAV, including the TB2. While their payloads are similar, the MQ-9 has much greater endurance. However, MQ-9s operating over the front-line risk being lost at rates similar to other MALE UCAV. Sending another 100 MALE UCAVs on balance remains a reasonable choice. The training and integration time needed to link the MQ-9—with its separate control terminal—to Ukrainian command networks are also important in deciding how and when to deploy this advanced system.
Notwithstanding, the MQ-9s could be useful deeper within Ukrainian territory, employing them as loitering long-range strike platforms. Ukrainian MQ-9s would also need to carry long-range missiles, which have yet to be provided – and would need to be mated with the Reaper platform – to remain within central Ukraine, some 100 miles or more away from the front-line. Alternatively, Ukraine could outfit its MQ-9s with an additional sensor package that limits Russian electronic capabilities and enables long-range target identification. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s MQ-9s would remain vulnerable to Russian MiG-31 interceptors armed with the long-range R-33 and R-37 air-to-air missile, designed to destroy high-value aircraft 200 miles away.
Russia must cultivate a perception of long-term endurance capacity if it is to win its war. Its mobilization waves, historic and callous disregard for its soldiers’ lives, public propaganda, and battlefield tactics all reinforce this view. Russia wants not a “grinding war of attrition”, but rather to make Ukraine look like an attritional war, because this evokes images within Western historical memory of the Russian bear’s indomitable will.
Ukrainian skill-at-arms can defeat Russia’s strategy on the battlefield. The West must also defeat this strategy in the domain of political perception. If Russia is to be forced to the bargaining table, it must be convinced that the West can and will sustain Ukraine in the long-term.
An MQ-9 transfer, properly conceived, would demonstrate the West’s commitment to long-term Ukrainian sustainment. It ought to include, however, fighter jets and long-range missiles alongside it to protect Ukrainian airspace, enable Ukraine’s southern and eastern offensives, and after the current phase of conflict ends, ensure that Ukraine can strike targets within Russia.
First should come NATO’s remaining MiGs, which can be put into Ukrainian service with only days or weeks of modification. In time, NATO-standard fighters should follow the MiGs. This demands a training mission at scale beginning in the next six weeks, to familiarize Ukrainian pilots with one of the F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon, or JAS-39. Moreover, these transfers and the need for long-range strike generates the requirement for a defense industrial system that includes Ukraine, likely Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, undergirded by the U.S., to sustain long-term Ukrainian defense production.
The West, including the U.S., wants the fruit of victory without the steel blossoms that precede it. Experience ought to have reminded Western leaders by now that at the apex, strategy and politics are as linked as Russian escalation is unlinked from the sophistication and scale of NATO’s assistance. The MQ-9s are an immediate and long-term investment in Ukraine’s defense against the invader. They should be sent.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author or Mayday and Seablindness. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.