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.
Read the rest at RealClear Defense.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.