Front-line pilots in Ukraine are at odds with the country's chief of staff over the use of US-provided Gray Eagle strike drones, which the pilots say can be easily shot down by Russian air defenses according to Foreign Policy.
"We are not advocating for the Gray Eagles," one pilot told the outlet, who added that Ukraine's military general staff are pushing for them. "There’s no good Air Force mind next to our chief of staff or commander who would say, speak up and say, hey, that’s B.S."
"It’s very dangerous to use such expensive drones in our case, because of the enemy’s air defense," he continued, adding: "It’s not Afghanistan here."
"Their systems are working on a more massive scale," said Bendett, referring to Russia's capabilities. "Their early warning radars are working. Their air defenses are working. So losing Gray Eagles is a real possibility to such a layered defense."
The drones could be used in limited circumstances, however - such as direct action on the front lines, the pilots said.
"It could be useful," said one active-duty Ukrainian fighter pilot whose call sign is Juice. "It could widen our strike capabilities on the front lines," he added.
That said, the pilots doubt the Gray Eagles would be likely to survive more than one or two missions, making the prospect of using the $10 million drones a bad idea.
Ukraine has been pulling back on its use of Turkish Bayraktar drones (TB-2s), which were initially effective at stopping Russian armored advances in the Battle of Kyiv, but are now far less useful since Russia's defenses have come online.
"They were very useful and important in the very first days, stopping those columns, but now that they’ve built up good air defenses, they’re almost useless," said one pilot, who goes by Moonfish.
Now, Ukraine is limiting the use of TB-2s to 'rare special occasions and attack missions,' said one of the pilots.
With Ukraine's air operations dialed back from the early days of the war to around 20-30 sorties per day, the pilots say they need to be taken off the flight lines so they can be trained on advanced US fighter jets such as F-15s and F-16s, in the hopes that the country will acquire the platforms. Right now, approximately 70% of Ukraine's air missions are providing close air support for advancing troops. According to the pilots, bringing advanced US fighter aircraft into the picture could help counter 'increasingly active' Russian air defenses.
Officials in Washington, meanwhile, are not optimistic that the deal for Gray Eagles will move forward anytime soon.
Russian officials had been collecting intelligence on American long-range drones for years prior to this conflict, said Bendett, the CNA drone expert. And those concerns are beginning to bubble up within the Biden administration. Reuters reported last week that American officials are concerned that sensitive equipment onboard could fall into Russian hands, leading to yet more hand-wringing from an administration that, while ultimately generous in its military support for Ukraine, has drawn criticism for being too sluggish in its response. -Foreign Policy
"They’re hemming and hawing again," said one US congressional aide familiar with the matter. "It's like pulling teeth."