March 22, 2024 | Insight

Ukraine Needs More Drones. Here’s One Way Washington Can Help.

March 22, 2024 | Insight

Ukraine Needs More Drones. Here’s One Way Washington Can Help.

Ukraine could double its annual production of drones if it had more funding, a Ukrainian official told The Guardian in an interview published on Wednesday. In addition to encouraging our European allies to do even more to help, Congress could authorize Kyiv to use a portion of its U.S.-provided Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for procurement within Ukraine, a privilege the United States has already extended to Israel and Taiwan.

Last December, Kyiv announced plans to produce 1 million first-person view (FPV) drones along with 11,000 longer-range one-way attack unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2024. FPV drones are racing quadcopters rigged with explosives and used as improvised loitering munitions.

Mykhailo Fedorov, deputy prime minister and minister of digital transformation, indicated those plans are on track. Ukraine is set to make “more than a million” UAVs this year, he told The Guardian.

But with sufficient funding, Ukrainian industry could churn out twice that many, Fedorov said. Kyiv is “contracting much less than our manufacturers are capable of,” as the Ukrainian government is tight on cash, the minister stated.

UAVs are central to the war in Ukraine. Both sides rely on them for reconnaissance as well as for strikes near the front line and deep in the rear. FPV drones, in particular, have emerged as a key weapon for attacking enemy vehicles and personnel at tactical depths. As Ukraine suffers from a shortage of artillery ammunition, Kyiv’s reliance on FPVs has increased.

Ukraine was the first to adopt FPV drones at scale, but Russia has caught up. The Russians may now enjoy a quantitative advantage.

Moreover, just as Russia and Ukraine compete quantitatively, they are also engaged in an ever-evolving technological race. The latest battleground is the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) into FPV drones. Kyiv hopes that technological innovation, including with respect to UAVs, will enable Ukraine to overcome Russia’s numerical advantages in manpower and materiel.

Building more drones in Ukraine and equipping them with the most advanced capabilities costs money. To supplement state procurement, Kyiv is encouraging Ukrainian citizens to chip in. European nations have also pledged to provide Ukraine with FPV drones and other UAVs, although these initiatives focus on supplying drones to Kyiv rather than resourcing Ukrainian production.

The United States should do its part, too. One way we could help involves a program called Foreign Military Financing, which Washington uses to provide foreign partners with grants or loans to buy American defense articles, services, or training. Congress could take the simple step of authorizing Kyiv to use a portion of its FMF funding to procure drones in Ukraine that it cannot get from American companies in sufficient quantities.

This would not be an unusual step. Congress has previously granted Israel and Taiwan the right to use FMF for “offshore procurement.” In other words, Jerusalem and Taipei can use some FMF for procurement from their own defense industries. Kyiv, on the other hand, must spend all its FMF in the United States.

As a general rule, there are good reasons to require FMF recipients to buy from U.S. companies. That foreign demand spurs the American economy and defense industrial base and helps strengthen U.S. political will for supporting key partners against common threats.

In some cases, however, exceptions to this rule best serve U.S. interests. Unfortunately, in most cases, U.S. industry struggles to offer the types of UAVs Ukraine needs or does not produce them at sufficient scale. Granting Ukraine a partial offshore procurement privilege could help Ukrainian forces acquire more of the UAVs it urgently needs to target invading Russian forces. This approach would also strengthen Ukraine’s industrial base, promoting Ukrainian self-sufficiency and potentially enabling Kyiv to reduce reliance on Chinese-made UAVs and components. Kyiv could also use the funding to develop and scale up the integration of advanced features.

For these reasons, Washington should press its European allies to provide funding to Kyiv for the domestic procurement of drones. For its part, when it finally passes the long-delayed supplemental national security bill, Congress should consider authorizing Kyiv to use a portion of future FMF appropriations to procure select UAVs in Ukraine. 

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power.



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