The MQ-9 Reaper drone incident, explained

At 7:03 am Central European time on March 14, one of a pair of Russian Su-27 fighter jets flying over the Black Sea struck the propeller of an MQ-9 drone piloted by the United States. According to the US European Command, the propeller strike required the drone’s remote pilots to land it in international waters. This is hardly the first downing of a Reaper drone, nor even the first time Russian forces have caused such a plane to be destroyed, but any confrontation between the military aircraft of the world’s two leading nuclear-armed states can be understandably tense.

As of 2021, the United States has based its MQ-9 Reaper drones in Romania, a NATO ally that borders both Ukraine and the Black Sea. These Reapers, as well as Reapers flown elsewhere, were part of the overall aerial surveillance mission undertaken by the United States and NATO in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

What happened to the Black Sea?

The basics of the incident are as follows: “Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and struck by a Russian aircraft, resulting in the crash and total loss of the MQ-9,” US Air said. Maj. Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, in a statement about the incident released by U.S. European Command. β€œIn fact, this unsafe and unprofessional action by the Russians almost caused both aircraft to crash. US and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace, and we call on the Russians to behave professionally and safely.”

This is the language that highlights the incident as a mistake or violation by the two Russian Su-27 pilots. It is not, in particular, a requirement that the loss of a Reaper be met with more direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, even as the US supports Ukraine with supplies and, often, intelligence as it struggles against Russia’s ongoing invasion. In the years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian jets harassed US aircraft over the Black Sea. It’s a common enough phenomenon that the RAND think tank even has published a study about what kind of signals Russia intends to send when it intercepts aircraft near but not in Russian airspace.

“Several times before the collision,” according to the European Command, “the Su-27s refueled and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner.”

Russia’s Ministry of Defense as well issued a statement about the incident, claiming that the Reaper was flying without a transponder activated, that the Reaper was headed for the Russian border, and that the plane crashed on its own, without any contact with Russian jets.

In a press briefing on the afternoon of March 14, Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder noted that Russian pilots had been flying near the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before the collision that destroyed the Reaper. Asked if the drone was near Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that was part of Ukraine until Russia seized it in 2014, Ryder said only that the flight was in international waters and well away from any Ukrainian territory. Ryder also did not specify when asked whether the Reaper was armed or not, saying instead that it was performing an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) mission.

The New York Times reported that the drone was not armed, citing a military official.

What is the MQ-9 Reaper?

The Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle, propelled by a thruster. Manufactured by General Atomics, it is an evolution of the Predator drone, which began as an unarmed scout before being adapted into a lightly armed bomber. The Reaper entered operational service in October 2007 and was designed from the ground up to carry weapons. It can use nearly 4,000 pounds of explosives, such as laser bombs or up to eight Hellfire missiles.

They measure 36 feet from tip to tail and have a wingspan of 66 feet and in 2020 cost about $18 million each.

To guide remote pilots for takeoff and landing, the Reapers have a forward-facing camera mounted on the front of their matchstick-shaped aircraft. To perceive the world below and provide useful real-time video and imaging, a sensor array complete with laser target designator, infrared camera and electro-optical cameras under the front of the drone, operated by a second member of ground crew : the sensor operator.

Reapers can remain airborne at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet for up to 24 hours, with remote crews guiding the plane in shifts and conducting in-flight trades. The Reaper’s long endurance, not just hours in the sky, but its ability to operate up to 1,150 miles away from where it took off, allows it to monitor vast areas, looking for related traffic below. This was a critical part of how the US fought the counterinsurgency in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan, where armed Reapers tracking suspected enemies proved to be an enduring feature of the war, with mixed results.

While the Reapers have been in use for over a decade, they have mostly seen action in skies relatively clear of enemy threats. A Reaper’s top speed is just 276 mph, and while its radar can see other aircraft, the Su-27 fighter jet can run around it at Mach 2.35. In looking for a future replacement for the Reapers, the US Air Force has stated the intention that these planes can defend against other aircraft.

Have drones like the Reaper been shot down before?

The most famous downing of a US drone is the downing of an RQ-4 Global Hawk by Iran in June 2019. This unarmed surveillance drone was operating in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, a heavily trafficked waterway that it borders Iran on one side and the Arabian Peninsula on the other. Iran claimed that the Global Hawk was shot down inside Iranian territorial waters. the United States argued instead that the drone was operating in international waters. While the crisis did not escalate beyond the destruction of the drone, it was unclear at the time that this incident would end peacefully.

Reapers have been shot down by the military, including the US Air Force. In 2009, US pilots lost control of an MQ-9 Reaper over Afghanistan, so a manned fighter jet shot it down before it crashed in another country.

In 2017 and again in 2019, Houthi rebel forces in Yemen shot down US Reapers flying over the country. Reapers have also been lost due to entanglements when signals between operators and drones were jammed or cut off, as arguably happened to a Reaper operated by the Italian military over Libya in 2019.

Ultimately, the March 14 downing of the Reaper by Russian fighters appears to be part of the broader new normal of drones as part of regular military patrols. As with the destruction of a US surveillance balloon in the Atlantic, the most interesting lesson is less what happened between aircraft in the sky and more what whoever first reaches the wrecked aircraft on the water discovers.

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