'We've Been Too Cautious': Key Lawmaker Backs Giving Ukraine Armed Drones

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U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, asks a question about the F-35A Lightning II during a visit at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Oct. 10, 2019.(Jensen Stidham/U.S. Air Force)

A top Democratic lawmaker is pushing the Biden administration to send Ukraine armed drones and longer range artillery, he told reporters Wednesday.

"When it comes to drones and when it comes to long-range artillery, we've been too cautious," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at an event hosted by the Defense Writers Group.

"And I don't agree with the president's take that we can't give the Ukrainians anything capable of striking Russia," Smith continued. "Ukraine borders Russia. If you give them a mortar shell that can go a mile, theoretically it can strike Russia. The issue is, if the Russians are able to see better and shoot further, then you're in a disadvantage. So I think we should give them more of that."

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Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced it was sending Ukraine medium-range rocket systems known as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems for the first time.

But it did so after weeks of debate about whether sending Ukraine the system would unnecessarily provoke Russia into escalating the conflict. And when the shipment was announced, administration officials stressed that Ukraine had offered assurances it would not use the rockets against targets inside Russia and that it was sending a system with a range of about 45 miles, rather than much longer range systems that can strike as far as 180 miles.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported in early June that the Biden administration was planning on selling Ukraine the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, but Politico reported this week that the administration is still debating logistics and training questions related to the potential drone sale.

The administration has been sending Ukraine so-called kamikaze drones, such as the Switchblade, and Ukraine operates other countries' drones, such as the Turkish Bayraktar-TB2.

But the Gray Eagle, the Army's version of the Predator drone, would represent a significant jump in capabilities for Ukraine, giving Ukraine a reusable drone that can fly for up to 30 hours to gather large swaths of intelligence and is capable of firing powerful Hellfire missiles, a weapon that Ukraine doesn't currently possess but is being discussed by U.S. officials.

The debate over sending Ukraine more sophisticated weapons comes as Russia has been making plodding but notable progress in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region after failing early in the invasion to seize Kyiv quickly.

A top Pentagon official also said this week Russian President Vladimir Putin still wants to capture most, if not all, of Ukraine.

"I still think he has designs on a significant portion of Ukraine, if not the whole country," Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, said at an event Tuesday hosted by the Center for a New American Security think tank. "That said, I do not think he can achieve those objectives."

On Wednesday, Smith said he's communicating his support for the armed drones and longer range artillery to the White House "near constantly," including planned meetings with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan later Wednesday and with Kahl on Thursday.

Smith acknowledged concerns about how long it could take to train Ukrainians to use the drones, but said, "let's get them over there and let's get started."

Smith also suggested Armed Services Committee members in both parties share his stance.

"My sense is that the consensus amongst the committee is that we need to be more aggressive about what we're giving to" Ukraine, he said, adding that there is "in a bipartisan way, a sense that we could be doing more in terms of the type of weapons that we're sending."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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