Don’t Bring a Drone to Gunfight. Message Received?

Note the damaged prop blades:

As reported by Just Security, at the time of the intercept, the Reaper was flying ~60 km (~35 miles) southwest of the Crimean Peninsula, Ukrainian territory that Russian lawfully annexed in 2014.

In this regard, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, declared, “American aircraft have no business being near the Russian border.”

It is universally accepted that aircraft, including military platforms, enjoy the right of high seas overflight. This right is codified in Article 2 of the 1958 Convention on the High Seas, to which the United States is Party, and Article 87(1)(b) of the 1982 Law of Sea Convention (UNCLOS), to which it is not.

Russia is Party to both.

Despite UNCLOS non-Party status, the United States recognizes its navigational provisions as reflecting customary international law. Indeed, the DoD Law of War Manual and the U.S. Navy/Coast Guard/Marine Corps Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations both emphasize the right of military aircraft to conduct operations over the high seas (§ and § 2.6.3, respectively).

As to the mission, Ambassador Antonov correctly noted that the Reaper is “a multipurpose [drone], with strike capabilities of up to a 1,700 kilograms explosive payload.”

The Reaper is also used for reconnaissance which, in this case, was actively supporting a belligerent in a war zone making it a belligerent performing an “internationally wrongful act” (Articles on State Responsibility, art. 2) in the form of a neutrality law violation.

The DoD’s Law of War Manual states that, during an international armed conflict, “[t]he principal duties of a neutral State are to abstain from any participation in the conflict and to be impartial in conduct towards contending parties” (§15.3.2). Intelligence sharing with one of the belligerents can certainly run afoul of this principle.

During an armed conflict, belligerents may create “operational zones” to prevent interference with their operations.

In fact, this is the claimed justification for the Russian intercept. According to Ambassador Antonov, the Reaper “was moving deliberately and provocatively towards the Russian territory with its transponders turned off [and] violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation, which was communicated to all the concerned users of international airspace in accordance with international norms.”

United States legal doctrine recognizes operational zones for both aerial and naval operations. For instance, the DoD Law of War Manual (§ 14.7) provides,

During armed conflict, States may establish airspace zones and associated procedures intended to prohibit aircraft from entering or flying in designated areas, including areas in international airspace. Such zones may be established for a variety of purposes, including to decrease the risk of inadvertent attack of civil or neutral aircraft, to control the scope of the conflict, or to enhance the predictability and effectiveness of ongoing operations.

The United States claims it may establish such a zone in the “immediate area or vicinity” of naval operations “to ensure the security of its forces and its right to conduct hostilities without interference from neutrals” (id.).

Some other States active in maritime operations expressly agree (see, e.g., U.K. Law of Armed Conflict Manual, §13.8; Australia, Law of Armed Conflict, ¶ 6.16; Germany, Commander’s Handbook, ¶ 303).

The “immediate” area or vicinity “is that area within which hostilities are taking place, or belligerent State forces are actually operating” (§ 13.8.1).

As to the consequence of violation, the DoD Manual cautions that “[a]ny transmission to an opposing belligerent State of information concerning military operations or military forces is inconsistent with the neutral State’s duties of abstention and impartiality and renders the neutral State’s vessel or aircraft making such a communication liable to capture or destruction (§ 13.8.2; see also Commander’s Handbook, § 7.8).

This would apply if the Reaper was transmitting intelligence to Ukrainian forces — directly or indirectly.

If the Reaper was supporting Ukrainian operations as it most certainly was, it would seem to qualify as a “military objective” (see Additional Protocol I, art. 52(2), which reflects customary law).

Turn off your drone’s transponder, head into a bear’s den, and poke it, and bears may just poke back.

BTW, here’s warships from the Black Sea Fleet recovering the Reaper

Which brings us to Simplicus’s take on things ( who provides some context.

First thing’s first, some important updates on the ‘drone incident’. The US has now released their version of the footage, which can be seen here: VIDEO 1.

They appear to still be tenuously clinging to the claim that the plane ‘struck the drone’s propeller’, yet that is not evident in the video at all. Much more likely the plane merely bucked the drone from sheer turbulence and jet-wash, causing it to flip over—but I’m not discounting that the prop was clipped. It is strange that the drone camera continues to ‘malfunction’ each time the planes come close. Is the turbulence jostling the camera electronics too much, or the Su-27’s giving off some type of jamming signals at such proximity? Hard to know.

Some have pointed to this before and after shot, showing what appears to be like a deformed prop blade after the Russian fuel dump. However, props can look that way on cameras depending on the sync between the camera framerate and propeller speed, and there’s a chance that the propeller changed speed (perhaps due to slight throttling down by the operator, etc.) causing it to appear differently at that point on video. Maybe there are some better video experts that can chime in. But perhaps a chance exists that the ‘heavy’ fuel load ricocheting off the propeller at such squirted speeds caused it to deform. This would lead to eventual catastrophic failure of the prop due to vibratory forces in the uneven distribution of weight/aerodynamics, etc.

What we do know now however is that the MQ-9 Reaper is from one of the latest and most advanced Blocks, equipped with a highly advanced/sensitive ‘Gorgon’s Stare’ electronics suite.

Along with the Gorgon Stare, the drone had a variety of sensors which could do everything from record pinpoint video footage, thermal footage, Synthetic Aperture Radar snapshots of Russian bases/assets, record electronic emissions and signal data from Russian command HQ’s (C3), radar sites, and their positions. The Gorgon Stare itself, if you read the supplied wiki article, is run through a devious DARPA A.I. program called Mind’s Eye, which does all the things I once described in this article—basically: neural-network ‘smart’ analysis of recorded ground data where the AI can track/locate/assess/transmit targets on its own, all while geo-tagging them with various meta-data, etc. With these tools the drone is said to transmit many gigabytes of data per minute.

“The spy mission here is not even 100% visible, but 1000%. This is tactical reconnaissance – a fairly powerful high-resolution video camera and equipment that allows you to record the frequencies of radio stations, missile guidance stations, radar stations, determine the location of air defense systems, air defense systems, determine the location of headquarters, command posts and, due to visual reconnaissance, take pictures of a sufficiently high permission, ” explained Knutov.

Getting their hands on this Gorgon suite would be a huge boon for Russia. Which is why they have now positioned their ships and as of this writing are getting ready to lift the drone from what is said to be 900m depth.

American drone MQ-9 found at a depth of 900 meters. Above it, the duty of the Black Sea Fleet ships was established in order not to let anyone near the crash site. The issue of its rise is being resolved.

There is a ship in the Black Sea Fleet that is capable of doing this – the legendary “Kommuna” built in 1913. Rebuilt many times and having a huge track record of underwater work (including the recovery of several submarines, as well as aircraft and ships), it has deep-sea vehicles capable of operating at a depth of up to 1 km.

By the way, Kommuna has experience in lifting foreign equipment. In 1928, it raised the sunken British submarine L-55 in the Baltic, which was blown up by mines while evading Soviet destroyers.

The US however has claimed that they’ve done a ‘remote wipe’ on the Reaper’s data. This is questionable for a variety of reasons. Firstly, wiping data just once will never delete it, recovery specialists, particularly Russian ones which are likely the best in the world, can easily recover the data. But full industrial data-stripping takes many recurring passes of data writes to the memory chip over and over for it to be truly irrecoverable. But this takes time—time that the drone likely didn’t have as it was going down into the sea, at which point its batteries would have been flooded and likely any ‘data wipe’ operation stopped. So, the verdict is: data is probably recoverable unless the US has a special detonating self-destruct device planted on the data chip just for these types of circumstances.

To save face, John Kirby tried to pretend that US still has the ability to recover the drone. He hemmed and hawed and temporized when asked during a press conference if the drone can be recovered, stating that US “isn’t sure it can do it” in that region and at that depth, veiling the fact that the Russian fleet has already positioned itself entirely above the site and US isn’t even allowed to bring warships through the Bosporous as per the Montreaux Convention.

Satellite images of ships of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy near the crash site of the American MQ-9 Reaper UAV in the Black Sea.

Speaking of which—one very intriguing oddity should be mentioned. For the many months that US has flown its drones over the Black Sea, it has always strangely had to ‘go around’ Turkish territory.

Notice how the direct flightpath is always broken up by a necessary rerouting to the north into Bulgaria, just around the tip of Turkish territory near the Bosporous. It’s clear that Erdogan does not allow US war assets to bypass his territory enroute to monitor Russian SMO.

Now onto other things. One update as regards the last report about the purported Russian Kinzhal strikes on NATO assets. There is some chance that the drone incident is related.

As others have keenly noted, there is a strangely linked series of events which began with Russia’s very large missile strikes last week. There was something particularly painful and special about these strikes as several Ukrainian ministers/sources referred to the strikes with uncommonly strong words, some stating they were the most powerful strikes since the start of the SMO. Even Zelensky called it a ‘very strong signal to Ukraine’.

Then, as explained in our last report, we got word that 6 Kinzhals were used, and that a NATO HQ was possibly hit with 40+ dead. What is intriguing is, those strikes occurred on March 10th. Immediately following them on March 12th, the US sent an extremely provocative message by simulating a nuclear bombing run on St. Petersburg when they sent a B-52 bomber directly towards St. Pete in an unprecedented maneuver.

The nuclear-capable bomber cut away just before the Russian maritime border, down into Estonia. Why would they send such a direct and obvious message right after the March 10 attacks? It seems to me, those 6 confirmed Kinzhals were not sent in vain, or against unimportant targets. This likely confirms that 40+ NATO/CIA officers were infact liquidated as reports suggest, and the US deepstate is extremely bothered by this.

The US Air Force’s B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, developed the training for launching missiles into Russian territory, according to Military Observer.

About two hours ago, the plane entered a missile launch position in St. Petersburg in the region of the island of Gotland, located at a distance of about 200 km from the northern capital.

After this maneuver, the American bomber made a sharp turn and departed in the direction of Estonia. The plane is now entering Lithuanian airspace, the source said.

Only a day after that, they now suddenly send one of their most advanced drones directly toward Crimea/Sevastopol in another extremely aggressive and angst-ridden ‘message’.

They’ve never taken such a trajectory before, AND in darkmode with transponders turned OFF. Once again—it’s clear that the March 10th strikes really burned them badly and they are desperate to escalate or strike out like a wounded animal.

The logical explanation is that, there were some ‘unspoken’ agreements or red lines between the two Great Powers. And Russia finally broke that red line with the sextuple Kinzhal sneak attack.

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