Report to Congress on Large Unmanned Aerial System Transfer to Ukraine

March 3, 2023 12:52 PM

The following is the March 1, 2023 Congressional Research Service Report, Large Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Transfer to Ukraine: Issues for Congress.

From the report

In mid-2022, Ukraine reportedly requested that the Biden Administration transfer to Ukraine large advanced Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Ukraine argues that access to these weapon systems would improve its air operations against Russian ground forces. In addition, the U.S. Air Force reportedly proposed the transfer of MQ-9 Reaper UAS to Ukraine in spring 2022. Some Members of Congress have expressed support for sending large UAS to Ukraine. For example, on September 21, 2022, a bipartisan group of 17 Members of the House of Representatives wrote to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressing support for the transfer of UAS like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle or the MQ-9A Reaper. Similarly, on November 22, 2022, a bipartisan group of 16 Senators also wrote to Secretary Austin expressing support for transfer of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle. Congress authorized the transfer of armed UAS to Ukraine (through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative) in the FY2023 James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act, P.L. 117-263, §1241(b). The Administration has reportedly expressed concern that Russia could capture and exploit some sensitive electronic components on these aircraft, such as electrooptical/infrared cameras. This Insight addresses potential issues Congress may consider if the Administration proposes a potential transfer of large UAS to Ukraine as the situation in the zone of conflict changes.

Large UAS like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9A Reaper—sometimes referred to as medium altitude long endurance UAS—provide continuous surveillance and reconnaissance and can be armed with weapons like the AGM-114 Hellfire II missile, GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Large UAS require a 5,000-foot runway to take off and land, along with a ground control station (GCS) accommodating multiple two-person crews to operate the aircraft. The radio frequency signal connecting the aircraft to the GCS can be line-of-sight or relayed through another airborne platform or satellite. (For more information, see CRS Report R47188, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Roles, Missions, and Future Concepts.)

The United States has supplied small and medium UAS to Ukraine. The Biden Administration first announced the transfer of these UAS to Ukraine in March 2022, which included the Phoenix Ghost and Switchblade, categorized as tactical UAS, and the RQ-20B Puma AE, a reconnaissance UAS. In August 2022, the Administration announced the planned transfer of the medium ScanEagle surveillance UAS to improve the Ukrainian military’s capability to find and target Russian artillery and troop positions.

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