Special Report

The US Military's 11 Most Expensive Drones

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The war in Ukraine, now well into its second year, has featured an unprecedented level of drone warfare. Ukraine and Russia have each deployed the remote-controlled, crewless aerial vehicles for both recon missions and as weapons, dropping grenades onto tanks to deploying them as robotic forward observers to help direct mortar fire and artillery.

“The size and the scale of drone use in Ukraine supersedes all the previous conflicts,” Samuel Bendett, an analyst of uncrewed military systems, told the AFP news service in January. Notably, the war in Ukraine has shown the effectiveness of small, inexpensive, and expendable commercial-type drones.

Ukraine has also deployed larger Turkish combat drones in the war against Russia’s invasion, while Russia has been using Iranian “kamikaze” drones. (Here are the 25 countries selling the most weapons, and who their biggest clients are.)

The United States has been a leader in producing some of the largest, most advanced, and most expensive military-grade drones. Provocative names like “Predator,” “Reaper,” and “Stingray” reflect how these drones have been used in the U.S. global war on terror that has been going on for more than two decades. (These are the 40 countries spending the most on war.)

To identify the most expensive drones in the U.S. military, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed a range of official government sources as well as recent press coverage of arms deals. Every drone on this list has a unit cost of at least $1 million. 

When possible, drone unit costs came from a July 2022 drone report from the Congressional Research Service titled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Current and Potential Programs.” The unit cost estimates used in this report are in current dollars. For drones not covered in the report, we relied on media reports of recent arms deals or unit costs as reported by the U.S. military that we adjusted to current dollars using the CPI inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Here are the most expensive drones in the U.S. military.

Source: WHPics / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

11. Scaneagle
> Est. unit cost: $1.4 million
> Military branch(s): Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps
> Function: Reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition
> Primary contractor(s): Boeing, Insitu

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10. RQ-21A Blackjack
> Est. unit cost: $5.3 million
> Military branch(s): Navy, Marine Corps
> Function: Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, target acquisition, and communication relay
> Primary contractor(s): Insitu

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

9. MQ-1B Predator
> Est. unit cost: $6.7 million
> Military branch(s): Air Force
> Function: armed reconnaissance, airborne surveillance, and target acquisition
> Primary contractor(s): General Atomics

8. MQ-8 Fire Scout
> Est. unit cost: $12.6 million
> Military branch(s): Navy, Marine Corps
> Function: Reconnaissance and ariel fire support
> Primary contractor(s): Northrop Grumman

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7. MQ-9 Reaper
> Est. unit cost: $28.0 million
> Military branch(s): Air Force
> Function: Intelligence-collection and dynamic target execution
> Primary contractor(s): General Atomics

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

6. MQ-1C Gray Eagle
> Est. unit cost: $92.9 million
> Military branch(s): Army
> Function: Long-range battlefield support and aerial fire
> Primary contractor(s): General Atomics

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Source: Boeing Co.

5. MQ-25 Stingray
> Est. unit cost: $121.0 million
> Military branch(s): Navy
> Function: Boeing
> Primary contractor(s): Aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance

4. RQ-4 Global Hawk
> Est. unit cost: $141.1 million
> Military branch(s): Air Force
> Function: Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, L3 Comm
> Primary contractor(s): High-altitude, long-endurance, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

3. MQ-4C Triton
> Est. unit cost: $162.6 million
> Military branch(s): Navy
> Function: Maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
> Primary contractor(s): Northrop Grumman

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

2. MQ-25 Stingray
> Est. unit cost: $211.1 million
> Military branch(s): Navy
> Function: Aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
> Primary contractor(s): Boeing

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

1. BAMS-D
> Est. unit cost: $219.5 million
> Military branch(s): Navy, Marine Corps
> Function: Maritime and littoral intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
> Primary contractor(s): Northrop Grumman

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