Controversial U.S. Drones Could Attack Putin's Vulnerable Black Sea Fleet

U.S. officials are urging President Joe Biden to supply the Ukrainian military with long-range drones they say could allow it to break a blockade of Russian war ships blocking freight from crossing the Black Sea.

In a Tuesday letter, a bipartisan group of 16 senior lawmakers requested that Biden reconsider his administration's June decision not to sell four General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed combat drones after a number of Pentagon officials raised concerns that high-value radar and surveillance equipment on the drones could potentially end up in Russian hands.

Ukrainian military officials, the lawmakers noted, have repeatedly requested the drones, which can carry four Hellfire missiles and are capable of flying long-range missions at high altitude. The training timeline for the weaponry is short—about 27 days, according to the letter—and the potential benefit for the Ukrainian offensive could be significant, particularly as its existing arsenal has been ineffective at breaking the blockade.

Meanwhile, Russia's Black Sea fleet remains highly vulnerable—down to just seven ships, according to the Ukrainian military. British intelligence in recent days said a successful strike on Russian ports could leave the entire flotilla susceptible to attack.

Lloyd Austin
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news conference with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup at the Pentagon on November 3, 2022, in Arlington, Virginia. Officials are urging President Joe Biden to supply the Ukrainian military with long-range drones they say could allow it to break a blockade of Russian war ships blocking freight from crossing the Black Sea. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

"The long-term upside of the MQ-1C is significant, and has the potential to drive the strategic course of the war in Ukraine's favor," the letter reads.

"A Russian victory over Ukraine would significantly damage American security and prosperity, and enabling Ukraine's preservation of its homeland remains a moral imperative and squarely within our national interests."

However, U.S. officials are believed to have been dissuaded from providing the missiles for fear they could not only fall into enemy hands but be seen by Russia as a U.S.-led escalation of the war.

"Technology security reviews are a standard practice for the transfer of U.S. defense articles to all international partners," Pentagon spokesperson Sue Gough told Reuters after the initial sale was paused in June. "All cases are reviewed individually on their own merit. Through the established process, national security concerns are elevated to the appropriate approving authority."

But there is also the question of whether the weaponry is necessary for Ukraine's defense, another aspect of the transaction the Pentagon is required to consider before any arms sale.

Some Ukrainian fighter pilots, speaking on condition of anonymity to news outlets earlier this year, reportedly dismissed the Gray Eagle's viability as a weapon of war, saying the weapons were usable only for reconnaissance missions at long distance, and were impractical for use in active combat situations.

While U.S. officials have so far declined to comment at length on the Gray Eagle's usefulness in the conflict, they now have an ultimatum.

The lawmakers—including senators Lindsey Graham, Tim Kaine and Joe Manchin—gave Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin a deadline of November 30 to respond to numerous questions about why the sale had not taken place, including whether the drone was not appropriate for the fight in Ukraine, whether it was able to overcome the security concerns involved in the transfer of the drones, and whether the sale of the drone would antagonize Russia into escalating the conflict.

Newsweek reached out to the Pentagon for comment.