What high-tech awards does the downed US drone have? Russia really wants to know

On Tuesday, two Russian fighter jets were intercepted by a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone flying high over the Black Sea. The jets shot down the drone in international waters, which has set off a race between Washington, DC and Moscow to recover the drone — a contest that could potentially extend into the depths of the Black Sea.

The MQ-9, a multi-role workhorse for the US military, likely reported Russian maritime activities related to the war in Ukraine when it encountered Russian Su-27 twin-engine jets. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker said in a statement that the Russian jet performed “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuvers—including dumping fuel on the $12 million unpaid jet and flying close to it.

When Russia disputed the US version of events, the US government – with remarkable speed – declassified video footage captured by the Reaper that showed one of the jets spraying fuel as it raced towards the drone. Eventually, one of the Russian aircraft came into contact with the four-bladed propeller that powers the drone from behind, which broke a propeller blade and caused the MQ-9 to crash into the water, according to the Pentagon.

The next day Sergei Naryskin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said that Moscow had the ability to recover the remains of the MQ-9. But US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested at a news conference on Wednesday that there would be little interest left for the Russians to find.

“In terms of losing any sensitive intelligence … we’ve taken mitigation measures, so we’re confident that anything that had value no longer has value,” Milley said. This could mean the US military has the ability to remotely disable or destroy some of the technology on the drone.

A typical MQ-9 Reaper carries what is called a multispectral targeting system. This includes a number of optical sensors, notably an infrared (IR) sensor and an electro-optical (EO) sensor, which consists of a color sensor and a monochrome daylight television camera. Footage from the three types of cameras on these two sensors can be viewed as video streams. The drone also carries a small Lynx radar to detect movement and activity on the ground. In addition, the Reaper has other equipment-carrying structures called pylons. Depending on the mission, they can support additional sensors—or even bombs and missiles.

But “this MQ-9 was not armed. it only carried sensors,” says David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Even without weapons on board, the MQ-9 could at least initially have technology that would reward Russian recovery efforts. “The value that Russia can get from the recovery depends on what is being carried on the aircraft,” says Deptula. “If there was some kind of unique sensor on board, that would be one thing. They might retrieve something they haven’t been exposed to before to exploit it for its technology. But if it was configured in a nominal mode, with the standard EO/IR payload sensor and Lynx radar, then there is no significant loss if the Russians recover it,” he adds.

This is not the first possible loss of US Department of Defense MQ-9 technology. In 2017 a Reaper was shot down in Yemen. In 2019 a missile shot down an MQ-9 in Libya. There was also another loss in Syria in 2020. “Parts of the MQ-9 have been exploited and shared elsewhere in previous years,” says Deptula.

And the DOD may still try to recover the downed drone this month. “We are evaluating options,” said Pentagon spokesman Brig. Quarterback Pat Ryder during a news conference Thursday.

Milley said the US government knows exactly where the MQ-9 landed in the Black Sea. “Probably it is [at a depth of] about 4,000 or 5,000 feet of water, something like that,” the general said. “So any recovery operation is very difficult at this depth by anyone.” When the US military lost an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the South China Sea last year, it took five weeks to retrieve it from a depth of 12,400 feet.

Possible options for salvaging the MQ-9 likely include plans drawn up by the diving and salvage supervisor at the Navy’s Ocean Engineering Directorate. This office oversees a warehouse full of deep-ocean rescue equipment, including a family of autonomous and remotely operated vehicles, as well as a mobile lifting system. These machines work together to find debris and lift it through thousands of feet of water.

But that bulky equipment, as well as the contractors trained to carry out missions on behalf of the US government, are based in Largo, Md.—far from the wreckage of the downed drone. If the US undertakes a recovery mission, it will take a long time just to get there. First the military must hire a merchant ship in the Black Sea to accommodate the equipment, which will have to be temporarily welded to the ship’s deck. Then it will take more time to hunt and retrieve the debris. In other words, no US recovery will happen anytime soon.

As for Russia, little is known about its deep-water recovery capabilities. But any such mission would likely involve dragging the 36-foot-long, 4,900-pound aircraft up through thousands of feet of water — if it’s still in one piece. If it disintegrated when it fell into the water, recovery will require combing the seabed for sections spanning many square miles. That’s no mean feat for anyone.

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