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Ukraine is getting ScanEagle drones to help it take out Russian artillery

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The U.S. is now supplying Ukraine with ScanEagle drones. This can spell bad news for Russian generals and ammunition handlers as the drones can help Ukrainian artillery destroy command posts and ammunition dumps.

As part of the $775 million military aid package announced by Washington on August 19, Ukraine will receive 15 ScanEagle drones. The ScanEagles are small but long-endurance UAVs that can stay in the air for almost 24 hours enabling them to provide Ukrainian artillery with real-time imagery and coordinates of Russian troops and facilities.

The ScanEagle is a proven system already in use with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, as well as almost 30 countries.

While the ScanEagle is not an attack drone, in many ways, it is more powerful than a missile-armed UAV. The 40-pound drone is four feet long and has a wingspan of 10 feet. With a maximum speed of 80 miles per hour and a maximum altitude of 16,000 feet, its performance isn’t particularly impressive compared to larger drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper, which has a speed of 275 miles per hour and can fly at 50,000 feet.

Related: US confirms sending HARM missiles as Ukraine wreaks havoc on Russian air defense systems

Might isn’t always right

ScanEagle drone operator
A ScanEagle operator retrieves the drone after a flight over Al Asad, Iraq, in 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps)

But for Ukraine, the ScanEagle has several attractive qualities. With the Ukraine conflict bogging down into trench warfare, a drone that can persistently surveil a sector for dug-in and well-camouflaged troops, vehicles, and installations is valuable.

The ScanEagle system is also mobile, rugged, and doesn’t need a runway.

“The Scan Eagle UAS is a portable system, which features four air vehicles, a ground control station, remote video terminal, and a launch and recovery system known as the Skyhook system,” according to the U.S. Air Force.

“Two specially trained airmen operate the Scan Eagle UAS with two additional maintenance personnel. The system is launched by a catapult, and retrieved by the Skyhook system which uses a hook on the edge of the wingtip to catch a rope hanging from a 30- to 50-foot pole. It requires no runway for launch or recovery,” the Air Force adds.

This means that unlike manned aircraft or large drones, Russia can’t stop ScanEagle flights by knocking out their airbases. Destroying a ScanEagle unit would probably require Russian artillery or aircraft to have real-time targeting data.

Equipped with electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) and thermal imagers, ScanEagle can relay daytime and infrared imagery back to its operators, who can quickly relay data to Ukrainian artillery. While not exactly expendable at more than $4 million for a four-drone system, they are cheap enough for Ukraine to absorb the inevitable attrition as the UAVs are consumed by combat and accidents.

Ukraine has already used several types of UAVs, including missile-armed, Turkish-made TB2 attack drones, and U.S. Switchblade kamikaze drones. As a surveillance UAV, ScanEagle isn’t likely to draw the same attention and praise as its armed cousins. However, if it enhances the effectiveness of Ukrainian artillery – and inhibits the effectiveness of Russian artillery, and command and logistic centers – then ScanEagle may prove to be effective indeed.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Feature Image: A ScanEagle surveillance drone. (Boeing)

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