The Gray Eagle catapults Kiev’s drone power into another league – the combat drone is far more dangerous than the Turkish TB-2. Combined with long-range rocket launchers, it becomes a deadly threat to Russia’s heavy artillery.
After much hesitation, the US is now delivering MQ-1C Gray Eagle combat drones to Kyiv. This US President’s decision marks a turning tide in far more than the delivery of ground systems. Drone can mean many things – the spectrum in the military starts with small kamikaze drones that can fly barely 10 kilometers. The Gray Eagle, on the other hand, is a medium-range combat drone. The Turkish drone Bayraktar TB2 was previously considered the most dangerous and feared weapon in the Kiev arsenal (Baykar Bayraktar TB2 – the most dangerous weapon in Ukraine comes from Turkey). The Gray Eagle is a TB2 on steroids – it’s significantly more powerful than the Turkish model. It is faster, its payload – i.e. the armament – can be twice as heavy and, above all, the range is much higher. This is around 150 kilometers for the TB2 and 400 kilometers for the Gray Eagle.
And that is crucial. With the TB2, the range limits the range of applications. 150 kilometers means that the drone has to be serviced, launched and controlled close to the front. If the base is 75 kilometers behind the front, then the TB2 can only strike 75 kilometers behind the Russian lines. The Gray Eagle can be housed further afield and still cover deep space on Russian territory.
Not a lone fighter
The drone can carry four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or four GBU-44/B Viper Strike precision bombs as armament. Both systems are standard armament for US drones. They work through the accuracy of their impact and not through a powerful explosive effect. The Hellfire’s warhead weighs only eight kilograms. The Gray Eagle will not achieve the main effect in Ukraine with its own – modest – armament. Their export should be seen in connection with the supply of long-range artillery and rocket launchers. Under the leadership of the USA – which supply HIMARS launchers – many NATO countries are now combing out their magazines and supplying Kyiv with similar systems. The MARS launcher comes from Germany. Depending on the ammunition, these weapons can reach ranges of 60 to 100 kilometers. Unlike the Stalin organs of World War II, they don’t have to ignite inaccurate area fire. With the appropriate ammunition, these launchers also hit individual targets precisely – i.e. right on the dot.
Precise target data far behind the front
But the goals must be clarified just as precisely. Launchers and Gray Eagle drones must be seen as an integrated system, linked by a powerful fire control system. The drone can detect supply convoys and heavy artillery positions far behind Russian lines, transmit target data or illuminate targets, and then call in the launcher’s strike. In this way she can achieve a far greater effect than with her own on-board weapons. With a battery of HIMARS, a Gray Eagle can attack 24 tanks or guns. And unlike the drone in the air, the launchers on the ground can reload. If the drone flies to target after target, the battery should be able to remain ready to fire continuously.
Worst case from a Russian point of view would be a bang, a massive coordinated surprise attack. The new launchers are camouflaged along the front. In order not to give themselves away, at first they do not intervene in the fighting. Rough positions of Russian artillery are spotted by radar. Then the drones take off and fly the entire front line over the Russian positions and can transmit target data from each gun. Theoretically (!) a good part of the Russian heavy artillery could be destroyed in one day.
So it is not surprising that Russia reacts furiously to this shipment, because in fact it is an escalation of Western military aid. This is intended to thwart Russia’s strategy of a roll of annihilation, which the Russian army is currently using to annihilate the Ukrainian armed forces in Donbass. The Russian reactions also arise because these systems could reach Russian soil. The launchers could attack bases and transport hubs in the border area, in many regions Russian forces have completely withdrawn from Ukraine and Kiev’s soldiers are on the border.
With a range of 400 kilometers, the Gray Eagle can attack targets far away in Russian territory or at sea. In Russia, an attack on the Crimean Bridge is also considered possible. That would be conceivable in terms of range, but the drone’s own armament is insufficient to destroy the bridge. Damage is conceivable, but it would be enough for a propaganda victory. Theoretically, it would also be conceivable to convert a Gray Eagle into a kamikaze drone. Remove parts of the equipment and the weapon mounts and use the increased payload for a large explosive device. Modified in this way, the drone could destroy the bridge.
Ultimately, the United States decides on the limits of the mission. Kyiv is absolutely dependent on US support, which must not be jeopardized in any way. It is also to be expected that the USA will be able to technically limit the geographical area in which these complex systems can be used.
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