Reaper madness: What really happened between Russian fighter jets and a US drone over the Black Sea
Here's how the incident really went down.
Editor’s note: this article by Alex Hollings first appeared on Sandboxx.
Last Tuesday, a pair of Russian Su-27 fighters intercepted an American MQ-9 Reaper drone operating over international waters in the Black Sea. In the days that followed, various competing narratives emerged. Russia has contended that the U.S. Air Force drone seemed to crash all on its own, while American officials have claimed in no uncertain terms that the Reaper went down only after one of the Russian jets crashed into it.
The U.S. has released footage of the incident, seemingly proving that the Russian fighter made contact with the drone’s rear-mounted propeller, ultimately forcing the aircraft down. Russia, on the other hand, has relied primarily on its longstanding use of “grey-zone” tactics, leveraging a wide web of state-backed media outlets and a veritable army of social media accounts to advance narratives critical of the American presence over the Black Sea.
And for an added bit of irony, Russia has since given the pilots involved an award, despite claiming the American drone went down on its own. While this may seem like a direct contradiction to Russia’s claims, these seemingly Schizophrenic declarations are actually an intentional part of Russia’s reflexive control information operation methodology. This works by flooding channels with a variety of information meant to overwhelm the casual observer until they question all facts presented to them, while also providing Russia’s own narrative machine with the opportunity to cherry-pick statements that best suit Russia’s future arguments.
So what really happened between the Su-27 and MQ-9 over the Black Sea?
According to the Pentagon, the unarmed MQ-9 Reaper was operating over international waters, flying over the Black Sea, in the early morning of March 14. At approximately 7:03 a.m. local time, the drone was intercepted by a pair of Russian Su-27 Flanker fighters who proceeded to harass the American aircraft for about 30 minutes, cutting directly in front of the aircraft, attempting to douse it in fuel, and generally flying in what American officials have described as an unsafe and unprofessional manner.
But then, shortly after 7:30, one of the two Su-27s appeared to collide with the rear-mounted propellor that powers the MQ-9. In footage released by the Pentagon, you can clearly see the fighter approaching the drone while dumping fuel, followed by a brief cut out as the two aircraft make contact with one another, and subsequently, one of the blades of the propeller is clearly damaged following the impact. That damaged propeller blade ultimately brought the MQ-9 down.
Russia subsequently claimed that their aircraft never made contact with the drone, releasing an official statement instead that suggested the MQ-9 must have crashed due to some kind of malfunction, saying that “as a result of sharp maneuver, the U.S. drone went into uncontrollable flight with a loss of altitude and collided with water surface.”
Of course, perfectly in keeping with Russia’s approach to managing narratives, its version of the interaction is not substantiated by the video footage. This is, after all, the same country that once released footage from an iPhone game and called it irrefutable proof of the United States supporting ISIS in Syria.
Who was legally at fault?
One of the most pervasive Russian-backed narratives to emerge following this incident is that the United States had no right to be operating over the Black Sea in the first place, citing Russia’s claims that the region is off limits.
“As we see it, American aircraft have no business being near the Russian border,” Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, told reporters last week.
The Black Sea, it’s important to note, is surrounded by six countries, three of which are NATO members (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania) and two more formal NATO partners (Ukraine and Georgia). Of the approximately 3,600 miles of coastline surrounding the Black Sea, Russia has a legal claim to less than 500 miles of it, with the remaining 3,100 or more miles legally owned by NATO allies or partners.
In fact, according to reports, this incident took place about 75 miles southwest of the Crimean peninsula — a territory Russia claims sovereignty over due to an illegal annexation it carried out in 2014. Its claims over Crimea are not recognized by the international community, and Ukraine continues to contest Russia’s ownership of the peninsula both diplomatically and kinetically.
While a variety of international accords and treaties signed by Russia recognize the validity of international waters and the right of aircraft to operate over them, Russia can make the argument that the U.S. drone was not a neutral asset, as it may have been providing intel directly to Ukraine. Of course, even that neutrality issue can be contested by the U.S., however, as these laws make allowances for instances when one state is the clear aggressor against another. The intent of the Russian pilot is even the subject of some legal standing, as the difference between harassing an aircraft and crashing into one, legally speaking, really comes down to whether the pilot meant to crash into the drone or not.
In other words, this is an issue that could be legally debated for years, as international law is a complex web of precedent and citation. However, independent expert analysts like Professor of International Law at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom Michael Schmitt, contend that the U.S. has the basis for a winning legal argument… before going on to point out that such a winning position doesn’t really matter all that much anyway.
“Based on those appearing in open sources, the Russian operation almost certainly violated the international law obligation of due regard and, perhaps, the prohibition on using force,” wrote Michael Schmitt in Just Security. “And there would appear to be no definitive legal justification for its action. It would follow that the United States is entitled to reparations for the loss of the Reaper and enjoys the right to take countermeasures to secure them. For practical reasons, however, this is an unlikely scenario.”
As Schmitt points out, if America attempted to use this incident as legal justification to pursue reparations, Russia would invariably refuse. At that point, the U.S. would find itself in a difficult position: it could attempt to force restitution or retaliate with a bit of kinetic diplomacy — both of which threaten to escalate the war in Ukraine into a broader conflict that would see U.S. troops directly involved in the fighting. Or, the U.S. can use this incident as further justification for its continuously broadening support for Ukraine, which does little to threaten the security of NATO allies on the continent while continuing to allow for the decimation of vast portions of Russia’s conventional military forces.
One outcome sees the destruction of Russian military forces through direct American intervention, potentially leading to nuclear war, while the other sees the destruction of Russian military forces without threatening American lives or inching the globe closer to a nuclear exchange. The latter, in this case, seems most logical.
No, the Russian pilot almost certainly didn’t crash into the American drone on purpose
This question of intent says a great deal about Russia’s perception of American military power, as well as its regard for international law. If the Russian pilot had been ordered to collide with the American drone to bring it down, it would mean that the Russian military sees the presence of these unmanned aircraft as a serious threat to their forces in the region… but importantly, one they don’t want to engage with directly.
Su-27 fighters carry 30mm cannons onboard and have a variety of air-to-air missiles at their disposal. The only reason a pilot might be ordered to take down an American drone without firing on it would be for the benefit of plausible deniability in order to avoid an American military reprisal. Any argument citing saved ammunition or anything to that effect ignores the high likelihood that the aircraft and its pilot could both have been lost in such a collision.
Despite arguments made by Russian supporters all over social media in recent days, crashing your $37 million fighter into a significantly cheaper American drone, placing both the aircraft and the pilot in jeopardy during a war in desperate need of both, is not a crafty way to cut costs.
Russia may have entered the war in Ukraine with as few as 100 fully-trained fighter pilots accompanied by a bevy of far-less experienced aviators. Since then, things have only gotten worse, meaning the pilot in command of this Su-27 was either one of the few extremely experienced Russian pilots remaining or one of the far greater numbers of pilots with only a few hundred hours of flying under the belts.
Russian military culture calls for the most qualified and experienced pilots to be given the most dangerous and difficult missions. Crashing into a drone the size of an A-10 Warthog without taking yourself out in the process would certainly count as dangerous and difficult, and as such, Russia would likely have sent one of their few remaining highly experienced pilots for the job. That’s a huge risk just to take out one drone while countless other NATO aircraft continue to operate in the region.
Objectively speaking, the argument is the definition of putting lipstick on a pig, with Russian apologists trying to frame something that was very likely an accident made by a poorly trained and inexperienced pilot as a bit of precision-flying worthy of a state-sanctioned medal.
Because even well-trained Russian pilots tend to average about half the cockpit time of their Western counterparts, and Russia is suffering a severe shortage of even pilots with that degree of experience, Hanlon’s razor seems to suit this situation well: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
But just because it seems exceedingly unlikely that the collision was on purpose does not mean the Russian pilots were not trying to bring the drone down. In fact, evidence suggests that’s exactly what they were doing.
Bringing down drones with jetwash is something Russia’s tried to do before
A few days after the incident over the Black Sea, Turkey released footage captured by a Ukrainian Bayrakatar TB2 drone showing Russian fighters trying to bring the drone down — the TB2 drones were designed and built in Turkey and were used to great effect by Ukrainian forces in the early months following the Russian invasion. According to Turkish officials, this footage was also captured over the Black Sea near the Crimean coast. Interestingly, intercepting Russian fighters attempted to bring the drone down in a similar manner to the MQ-9 (prior to the collision) and failed to do so. However. as that drone was Ukrainian, it does beg the question… why didn’t the Russian aircraft engage this drone with weapons?
A number of theories have been posited, from the Russian fighter not being armed with any air-to-air missiles to the possibility that the pilot was uncertain about which country the TB2 belonged to. While these seem like plausible explanations, this incident also points to the idea that Russian pilots are practicing ways to bring down drones without firing on them, either to save munitions or, as was the case with the American MQ-9, to avoid international reprisal.
The footage shows one (or possibly two) Su-27s crossing in front of the TB-2 to use its wake, or jetwash, to disrupt the drone’s flight. That wake turbulence does successfully interfere with the TB-2, but not sufficiently to bring the aircraft down. Successfully pulling this tactic off would allow Russia to intercept foreign drones and bring them down without firing on them, while issuing statements exactly like the one they issued following the MQ-9 incident that “as a result of sharp maneuver, the drone went down into uncontrollable flight.”
In other words, it seems likely this is a capability Russian pilots were trying to hone for incidents just like the one that took place between the American Reaper and the Su-27s. This time, the Russian jets tried dumping fuel on the drone as well, likely in hopes of stifling the air-intake on the engine… but then one pilot made a mistake by crashing into the drone instead.
What if Russia recovers the drone from the Black Sea?
On Wednesday, one day after the collision over the Black Sea, Russian officials claimed they would try to recover whatever remained of the MQ-9 that crashed. This claim was seemingly substantiated by Ukrainian forces on Thursday, who reported an uptick in unusual Russian naval activity in the waterway.
Later that same day, The Warzone identified a report from the Crimea-centric pro-Russian news site ForPost, claiming that the Russian Navy had located the wreckage of the Reaper in waters “near Sevastopol” (on the Crimean peninsula). According to this report, the wreckage was at a depth of some 2,952 feet, and, according to an unnamed source, an “underwater robot” descended to investigate. Later, CNN reported that U.S. officials believe Russia has successfully recovered “small fragments” of the drone that were described as “fiberglass” and “small bits.”
The possibility that Russia could gain valuable intelligence or reverse-engineer the MQ-9’s capabilities if they recover it is often cited by those advancing the narrative that this collision occurred on purpose, claiming it could give Russia a technological windfall without prompting an American military response. However, such a recovery would likely offer Russia more of a propaganda victory than a technological one.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder also said that “steps were taken” to limit the value of any recovery, likely suggesting some sort of automated destruct of data or hardware onboard. The reported recovery of just small fragments of the drone in these deep waters seems to substantiate the lack of serious concern from Pentagon officials.
“There’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly,” explained Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley. “As far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence, et cetera, as normal, we would take and we did take mitigating measures, so we’re quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value.”
Beyond these mitigating measures and the damage caused by the drone’s high-speed fall from altitude and collision with the water, it also seems somewhat unlikely that Russia hasn’t already gotten its hands on the wreckage of MQ-9 drones in the past. Over its more than two-decade-spaning service life, MQ-9s have crashed for other reasons or been shot down in a number of countries (including Syria) in which Russia had a presence or where local groups with Russian ties operate.
So, even if Russia were able to glean some worthwhile information from whatever chunks of the Reaper they manage to dredge up from the bottom of the Black Sea, it probably wouldn’t be new. The most significant value to this recovery operation, then, is in the information arena. Russia will almost certainly use any recovered material to advance the narrative that this incident was an intelligence victory, rather than what American officials have described as little more than a demonstration of Russian pilot incompetence.
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