WASHINGTON - Millions of dollars' worth of U.S.-supplied drones that Kyiv had hoped would help in its war against Russian-backed separatists have proven ineffective against jamming and hacking, Ukrainian officials say.
The 72 Raven RQ-11B Analog mini-drones were so disappointing following their arrival this summer that Natan Chazin, an adviser to Ukraine's military with deep knowledge of the country's drone program, said if it were up to him, he would return them.
"From the beginning, it was the wrong decision to use these drones in our [conflict]," Chazin told Reuters.
The hand-launched Ravens were one of the recent highlights of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, aiming to give Kyiv's military portable, lightweight, unarmed surveillance drones that were small enough to be used widely in the field. They are made by AeroVironment, a privately held U.S. company.
But they appear to have fallen short in a battle against the separatists, who benefit from far more sophisticated military technology than insurgencies the West has contended with in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.
Whether President-elect Donald Trump's administration might seek to provide Kyiv anything more robust, however, is unclear, given his stated desire to improve ties with Russia and prioritize the fight against Islamic militants. U.S. restrictions on technology exports could also limit new aid.
The Air Force command of Ukraine's armed forces acknowledged to Reuters that the Ravens supplied by the United States had a fundamental drawback: Russia and the separatist forces it supports can intercept and jam their video feeds and data.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that Russia's electronic warfare capabilities were far more sophisticated than thought when the conflict began and that both the U.S. and Ukrainian militaries were adapting.
Asked about Ukraine's reaction to the Ravens, one official said it took a lot of time for the drones to reach Ukraine, and that by then "they were much less effective than they would have liked, than we would have liked."
The U.S. Army told Reuters it still uses Ravens but has upgraded to digital versions from analog models.
Thirty-eight Ukrainian students were trained at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama on how to operate the drones between March and July this year, a U.S. Army spokesman said.
Ukraine said it distributed the Ravens across the services and gave one batch to the Zhytomry Military Institute for training purposes.
There were mixed accounts on how much the Ravens were being used in Ukraine, which saw Crimea annexed by Russia in 2014 and which has been fighting Russian-backed separatist forces in the east. Nearly 10,000 people have died in the conflict.
Not on front lines
The Air Force command of Ukraine's armed forces said the drones were being used in the "Anti-Terrorist Operation" zone, including in combat situations.
One Ukrainian official, however, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said that although drones were being used in the zone, they were not employed on the front lines.
Chazin said they were largely in storage and called them a vulnerability, allowing the enemy to see Ukrainian military positions and, when it wanted, easily take them down. They had short battery life and were unable to reliably fulfill the key mission of gaining intelligence on artillery positions, he said.
"[Analog] basically puts you back in the stone age" of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, said James Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I'm not being critical of the Raven. I love the Raven. ... But it's a cheap, disposable UAV. And for more intense conflict, that may not cut the ice anymore."
The drones, along with other U.S.-supplied items like radar, first-aid kits, night vision and communications gear, fit into President Barack Obama's strategy of providing nonlethal military assistance while focusing on sanctions and diplomacy to end the war.
Within that context, the miniature drones, even though small, were a noteworthy element of the more than $600 million in training and equipment that the United States has provided Ukraine so far. Ukraine pegged the Raven program's value at over $12 million.
How Trump might alter U.S. support remains unclear, particularly given Cabinet picks that include retired Marine General James Mattis, who has been vocal about his concerns about Russia and was nominated to become U.S. defense secretary.
Some of the most prominent Republican lawmakers in Congress have called for Ukraine to receive lethal arms.
"If anything, it creates a new opportunity," said Luke Coffey at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
Ukrainian officials have sought to put a brave face on Trump's election, downplaying comments on the campaign trail that included appearing to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and contemplating an end to U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Topping Ukraine's wish list are Javelin anti-tank missiles made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
The top U.S. military officer in Europe, General Curtis Scaparrotti, told a Senate hearing this year that "there's a requirement for an anti-tank weapon, like Javelin."