Could the Reaper Have Been Saved – An Analysis
Air Marshal GS Bedi (Retd)
The Incident

According to "Defense One," two Russian SU-27 aircraft intercepted a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle over the Black Sea on March 14, 2023. Apparently, the interceptors dumped fuel on it and then struck its propellers, causing it to lose flight control and crash into the Sea. According to Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the drone was flying over international waters, and the Russian actions were deemed unsafe, unprofessional, and incompetent. He believes that the two Su-27s had been flying in close proximity to the MQ-9 for 30 to 40 minutes prior to one "effectively crashing" into it. Additionally, he asserts that the aircraft sustained some damage but was able to land1. Indeed, extremely precise information.

While the Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged the presence of the drone and stated that it was flying with its "transponders turned off, in violation of the temporary regime for the use of airspace established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation," it denied the drone's interception. It asserted that no Russian aircraft had collided with the drone and that it had crashed due to "aggressive manoeuvring."[1]

Claims and counterclaims between the US and Russia will continue. The war may expand beyond the current confined area and may legitimise more aggressive operations between the two superpowers. On the sidelines, environmentalists are concerned about the discarded fuel polluting the atmosphere. The released fuel can contaminate water bodies, soil, and vegetation, causing long-term damage to the ecosystem, which can pose significant risks to the environment and to people on the ground, they claim[2].

Reaper Attributes

It is worthwhile to have a brief look at the physical attributes of the downed UAV. Reaper has a length of 11 meters, a wingspan of 20 meters, and a total weight of 4,763 kilograms. It is powered by a 944 horsepower Honeywell turboprop engine whose propellers can rotate at a rate of 2,000 revolutions per minute (RPM)[3]. Just to put it in perspective, in comparison, a Cessna passenger aircraft has a length of 8.3 meters, a wingspan of 11 meters, an all-up weight weight of 1157 kilograms, and a 180hp Lycoming engine.[4]

Actions by Russia

Why would the Russians risk a collision between an advanced, expensive fighter aircraft like the SU-27 and such a large object when a simple bird strike can cause significant damage to a fast jet? However, it also appears that the SU-27 must have observed the Reaper from close range in order for the Russian Ministry of Defense to claim that the UAV went down due to sharp manoeuvering, which cannot be seen on radar scope. It is possible that the collision occurred unintentionally due to close proximity and an unexpected manoeuver by the UAV. Fuel dumping appears to be a first of its kind, albeit a crude method of destroying an aerial threat. However, Russians are known to have employed coercive signalling.

According to a study conducted by RAND and published in the book "Understanding Russian Coercive Signalling", "Western capitals have been alarmed and perplexed by Moscow's frequent use of limited military actions, which fall far short of direct aggression but frequently pose escalatory risks."[5]In this whole episode, one thing is sure that the SU-27 pilots had ample time and were confident that the Reaper posed no threat to them.

US Claims

On the other hand, the US government's claim that the Russian interceptors were two SU-27, that they flew alongside the UAV for 30 to 40 minutes, then dumped fuel on it, struck its propellers, and one aircraft was damaged but still able to land, is truly incredible. They appear to have been observing everything in real time, which is of course possible with a combination of Radar and the Reaper's onboard electro-optical device. Why did the operator not react prior to the accident or attempt to save the machine?

Analysis of the Incident

For any fighter aircraft to accurately drop fuel on the Reaper or plan a propeller strike, the Reaper's flight conditions must have remained benign and stable. Although a UAV's manoeuverability can never match that of a fighter aircraft like the SU-27, it is sufficient to prevent any aircraft from dumping fuel over it or planning a precise bump. If the operator observed the fighters lurking nearby for 30 to 40 minutes, he or she could adopt a posture that causes the fighters to fear a collision. However, none of this transpired. The question is whether the operator gave saving it any priority or had the necessary training and orientation to do so.

In contested airspace, assets are not preserved based on a responsible behaviour by the adversary. They must have the intrinsic ability to do so. Nonetheless, the decision makers in the UAV domain do not seem to accord any priority to this aspect.

Protection of Uncrewed Platform

During an interaction at the Vivekananda International Foundation on February 16, 2023, BAE Systems' Matt Foster, while talking about the future technology and warfare emphasised that the contested air space will be protected by formidable air defences. In addition, while predicting a number of significant technological advancements in unmanned platforms, he stated, "They will be costly, will have enhanced capabilities, and thus will be able to perform more work; however, you can afford to lose them."

When it was pointed out that these machines will be expensive and integrated into the war fighting, so they should have some basic protection suit, he agreed in principle but stated that the manufacturer would be concerned about the high cost of including such features. The defence of these sophisticated drones appears to be guided more by the absence of humans in them rather than by the contribution they make to the war effort.

The SU-27 must have used their Airborne Intercept radar to locate the target in the air in this instance, though a conjecture but supported by professional knowledge. A simple radar Warning Receiver and chaff packet onboard the UAV would have alerted the operator and confused the fighters while the aircraft vacated the area to a safer territory. A basic IR "fire and forget" missile would not permit such a close examination by anyone. Not that a UAV cannot be eliminated, but the point is that the adversary should also have to risk its own asset. Moreover, its survival for certain critical tasks woven into the overall gameplan may be crucial, even if it’s for a limited duration.

Lessons for India

India is currently in the process of developing advanced UAVs. Bharat Electronics Limited's (BEL) TAPAS - BH 201 (Tactical Advanced platform for Aerial Surveillance – Beyond the Horizon) was proudly displayed at Aero India 2023. It possesses remarkable capabilities. Archer-NG (Next Generation) is a developing armed drone capable of carrying 300 kg of weapons, including smart anti-airfield weapons and anti-tank guided missiles, as reported by the Financial Express on February 15, 2023.[6] All of this will undoubtedly bolster the warfighting capability. There may be value in planning for their survival in the contested airspace. The Indian industry has the capability and only needs directions. Incorporating basic protection suit in an expensive and valuable UAV is highly recommended.








(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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