Earlier this week, two Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft downed a United States MQ-9 Reaper that was flying in international airspace over the Black Sea. The Department of Defense released video evidence of the event, just forty-two seconds long, that appears to justify the US claim that Russian jets dumped fuel on the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and then collided with the Reaper’s propeller, prompting the vehicle’s operator to crash it into the Black Sea.
Not surprisingly and despite the video evidence, Russia claimed that the Russian fighters “did not use airborne weapons or come into contact” with the Reaper. While the evidence clearly indicates the Russian fighters engaged in extremely aggressive flight near the UAV, it is not clear if the fighters intended to physically hit the vehicle or the collision was unintended and instead the result of a miscalculation when flying too close.
Regardless of Russia’s intent, three things can be learned from this incident. First, this might have been a deliberate effort by Russia to distract from the fact that its air force has underperformed in the war to date. Second, it suggests that unmanned platforms may change escalation calculus, with states willing to engage in riskier behavior around unmanned vehicles than manned aircraft. Third, it demonstrates that large UAVs that served the United States well in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be survivable enough for large-scale combat operations against a near-peer adversary.
The Meagre Wartime Contributions of Russia’s Air Force
Why are Russian fighters attacking an unmanned aircraft in international airspace instead of supporting a brutal urban fight in Bakhmut? It may be that the incident over the Black Sea is about all that the Russian air force is capable of doing right now.
The underperformance of Russia’s military has been shocking, to say the least. As early as March 2022, Russia’s failure to defeat the Ukrainian air force was being described by some as “one of the biggest surprises of the war.” Many thought Russia would achieve air supremacy quickly, but more than one year later, its air force has failed to even achieve air superiority.
According to Dutch open-source intelligence and defense analysis website Oryx, Russia has lost at least seventy-nine fixed-wing aircraft, seventy-nine rotary-wing aircraft, seven combat UAVs, and 194 reconnaissance UAVs. Among these losses included an Su-27, the same aircraft that Russia used to down the Reaper. Oryx only reports losses that it can confirm through “photo or videographic evidence,” so it acknowledges that Russian losses are “significantly higher” than what they report.
These losses are significant—they are expensive and take years to replace, especially given Russia’s struggles to get its defense industrial base to support its war effort. Yet more impactful than the cost of the losses is the fact that it has changed how Russia is able to employ its aircraft. At the start of the war, the Russian air force had one of the largest fleets of military aircraft in the world—the third largest behind those of the United States and China. Yet despite Russia’s significant investment in this large air service, it has only been able to play a marginal role in the ground war.
If the attack on the Reaper was intentional, then one plausible and likely explanation is that President Vladimir Putin or another senior Russian military leader authorized the brazen attack to distract the Russian populace from the fact that its air force has been so impotent. It allows Russian leaders to hope that the downing of an unprotected UAV flying in international airspace will be perceived domestically as some kind of a victory.
Unmanned Platforms Have Changed Escalation Calculus
While this may not have been a momentous violation of international law—at least compared to Russia’s previous ones—its implications are significant from a military or political perspective. At the start of the war, there were calls by some to establish a no-fly zone, but military and policy officials never seemed to seriously consider this option because of the risk that it “could easily lead to a war between NATO and Russia.”
The only way to enforce a no-fly zone would require NATO members to directly engage Russian aircraft, which could understandably be viewed from the Russian perspective as an act of war. Over time, particularly during the Cold War, a set of normative standards took shape that helped manage the risk of escalation. Superpowers may supply arms to proxies, as the United States did in Afghanistan in the 1980s or the Russians did in Vietnam in the 1970s, but superpowers do not engage in military conflict directly due to the risk of nuclear escalation. Against the backdrop of those relatively longstanding norms, this direct attack was significant.
Regardless of whether the contact was intentional or not, it is unlikely that Russia would have engaged in such reckless behavior if the aircraft had been manned. Despite previous tensions, Russia has never dumped fuel on or flown so close to manned aircraft flying in international airspace. Thus, Russia likely felt it could engage in this risky behavior because the aircraft was unmanned.
Neither the United States nor Russia want to engage in an action that might inadvertently trip the two powers into a direct war. Intentionally or unintentionally downing a manned aircraft that could result in the death of its pilot risks escalation that neither party wants. By contrast, downing a $32 million unmanned aircraft might draw some negative repercussions, but is not likely to result in direct escalation. Thus, it seems likely that UAVs invite more aggressive actions and this might be the first of what could become a much more common behavior.
UAV Survivability and Large-Scale Combat Operations
The MQ-9 Reaper and other large, fixed-wing drones like the MQ-1 Predator were designed in an era in which US air supremacy was assumed. They were developed after the end of the Cold War, at a time when no nation could challenge the United States militarily. These assumptions held in Afghanistan and Iraq, conflicts for which these platforms were optimally matched.
Facing little to no air or counterair threat, the United States designed these platforms to maximize their ability to loiter while carrying a limited payload. They did not have to invest in building an aircraft capable of conducting evasive maneuvers because such maneuvers were not necessary. This was a smart design choice in the context of the wars that the United States was engaged in after 9/11. Yet, when the US military transitioned from these wars to focus on near-peer threats and large-scale combat operations, it made no changes to the Reaper.
Piloted aircraft are designed to be capable of conducting evasive maneuvers and are armed with countermeasures, such as flares to protect against heat-seeking missiles, to keep their pilots alive. But designing planes with these capabilities results in trade-offs. For example, an F-16 that is capable of flying at Mach 2 and withstanding nine G’s of force must be built with an engine powerful enough and an airframe strong enough to conduct evasive maneuvers, but that leaves the aircraft with a limited loiter time.
For smaller, less expensive UAVs, it likely is not worth the engineering trade-off to create a more survivable aircraft. With a cheaper platform, a higher loss rate is acceptable. But the MQ-9 costs roughly half as much as an F-16, so it would seem prudent to engineer defensive measures into the platform. This would necessarily reduce the UAV’s loiter time, but what good is a long loiter time if the UAV does not survive long enough it leverage it?
This week has demonstrated that the MQ-9 Reaper may not be survivable in an environment characterized by large-scale combat operations. Admittedly, the United States was not at war, so it did not have an integrated air defense to support this UAV’s mission. Nevertheless, the Russian attack did demonstrate the aircraft’s vulnerability and there should be real debate about survivability and the role of these expensive platforms in a future conflict against a near-peer adversary. There is a decision to be made: Should the US military field more survivable UAVs—ones capable of conducting defensive maneuvers—or invest in smaller ones that it does not mind losing?
While much of the attention from this event has focused on the political ramifications, those discussions will soon pass. When they do, it will be critical that the lessons that this incident foretells about unmanned platforms, strategic decision-making, and large-scale combat operations do not pass with them. Several of those lessons were on display this week in just forty-two seconds of video.
Liam Collins, PhD, was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and served as a defense advisor to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. He is a retired Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America. He is coauthor of Understanding Urban Warfare.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.