Small Wars Journal

Countering Russia's Glide Bomb Threat: The Case for MQ-9 Reaper Deployment to Ukraine

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 11:35am

Countering Russia's Glide Bomb Threat: The Case for MQ-9 Reaper Deployment to Ukraine

By Daniel Rice 


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has witnessed a significant shift in Russian tactics, with fighter-bombers now deploying over 100 large "glide bombs" daily against both military and civilian targets. These precision-guided munitions, some weighing up to 3,000 pounds, are causing devastating damage and need to be countered effectively. The immediate provision of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Ukraine could be a strategic response to this evolving threat.


Russian fighter-bombers are launching air-to-ground glide bombs from behind their own lines, allowing the munitions to travel up to 60 kilometers (38 miles) beyond the Forward Edge of the Battle Area. These weapons are cost-effective modifications of conventional "dumb bombs," similar in concept to the U.S. Joint Direct Attack Munition system. The standoff capability of these weapons poses a significant challenge to Ukrainian air defenses and ground forces.


While Ukraine is set to receive F-16 fighter jets, which will bolster its air defense capabilities, the limited number of these aircraft will not be sufficient to provide comprehensive coverage against the widespread glide bomb threat. A more scalable and persistent solution is required to effectively counter this evolving Russian tactic.


The United States should immediately provide Ukraine with dozens of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Although first introduced in 2001 and no longer at the cutting edge of U.S. military technology, the Reaper remains a formidable platform that could significantly enhance Ukraine's defensive capabilities. With a 50,000-foot operational ceiling, 40-hour loiter time, and 3,800-pound payload capacity, these UAVs can carry both air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.


The MQ-9 can be equipped with a range of long-range air-to-air missiles, including the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and AIM-120 AMRAAM with ranges up to 100 miles. This capability would allow Ukrainian forces to intercept and deter Russian fighter-bombers before they can launch glide bombs.


Reapers can operate behind Ukrainian lines, utilizing their advanced sensors to monitor both ground and air operations, providing valuable intelligence and targeting data. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated proficiency in operating various unmanned systems. The integration of MQ-9 Reapers would leverage this expertise and significantly enhance their air defense network.


The United States reportedly has over 100 MQ-9 Reapers in storage, ready for potential deployment. By providing these UAVs to Ukraine, the U.S. could help create an unmanned Ukrainian air force capable of not only intercepting glide bombs but also reducing the effectiveness of the Russian Air Force, potentially relegating it to a support role similar to the current status of the Russian Navy in this conflict.


One primary concern regarding the provision of MQ-9 Reapers to Ukraine is the potential for technology transfer if an aircraft is shot down and captured by Russian forces. However, operating these UAVs from well behind the front lines minimizes this risk. In the unlikely event of a shootdown, the wreckage would likely fall within Ukrainian-controlled territory.


The deployment of MQ-9 Reapers to Ukraine represents a strategic opportunity to counter the growing threat of Russian glide bombs effectively. These UAVs offer a cost-effective, low-risk solution that leverages Ukraine's demonstrated proficiency with unmanned systems. As the Blue Öyster Cult famously sang, we shouldn't "Fear the Reaper" – unless you're a Russian fighter-bomber pilot.


Congress should approve the immediate deployment of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to Ukraine. This action would provide a crucial capability to counter Russian glide bomb attacks on both military and civilian targets, potentially shifting the balance of air power in the conflict. The time to act is now, before the devastating impact of these glide bombs exacts an even greater toll on Ukraine's military and civilian population.


About the Author(s)

Dan Rice is a 1988 graduate of West Point and is the President of the American University Kyiv and the Co-President of Thayer Leadership at West Point.  He holds an MBA from Kellogg/Northwestern, a master’s in journalism and Marketing from Medill/Northwestern, a Masters of Education from the University of Pennsylvania and has completed all doctoral classes in Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.   He served in the Infantry in combat in Iraq in 2004-2005.  Dan served as Special Advisor to the Commander in Chief of Ukraine Armed Forces (May 2022-March 2023) as an unpaid volunteer. He has been the primary advocate for Cluster Munitions for Ukraine and received the Saint Barbara’s Medal in 2023 for his advocacy that helped gain cluster artillery shells in July 2023, and then cluster rockets and missiles in October 2023.