What high-tech prices does the crashed US drone hold?  Russia really wants to know

What high-tech prices does the crashed US drone hold? Russia really wants to know

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  • March 18, 2023
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On Tuesday, two Russian fighter jets intercepted a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone flying high over the Black Sea. The jets brought down the drone in international waters, sparking a race between Washington, DC and Moscow to recover the drone – a contest that could potentially extend to the depths of the Black Sea.

The MQ-9, a multi-role workhorse for the US military, was probably reporting on Russian maritime activity related to the war in Ukraine when it encountered the Russian twin-engine Su-27 jets. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker said in a statement that the Russian plane performed “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuvers – including dumping fuel into the $12 million UAV and flying close in front of it.

When Russia denied the US version of events, the US government released — with remarkable speed — video footage taken by the Reaper, showing one of the jets spraying fuel as it sped toward the drone. Eventually, one of the Russian planes made contact with the four-bladed propeller propelling the drone from behind, causing a propeller blade to break and causing the MQ-9 to fall into the water, according to the Pentagon.

The next day, Sergey Naryshkin, director of the Russian foreign intelligence service, said so 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, hinted in a press conference on Wednesday that there was little left of interest for the Russians.

“As for the loss of sensitive information… we have mitigating measures in place, so we’re pretty confident that anything that was of value is no longer of value,” Milley said. This could mean that the US military is able to remotely disable or destroy some of the drone’s technology.

A standard MQ-9 Reaper carries what is known as a multispectral targeting system. These include a range of visual sensors, most notably an infrared (IR) sensor and an electro-optical (EO) sensor, which consists of a color sensor and a monochrome daylight TV camera. Recordings from the three camera types 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, these can support additional sensors – or even bombs and missiles.

But “this MQ-9 was not armed; it just 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 might have carried technology, at least initially, that would reward Russian recovery efforts. “The value that Russia could derive from the salvage depends on what’s carried on the plane,” says Deptula. “If there was a unique sensor on board, that would be one thing. They could restore something they weren’t previously exposed to use for its technology. But if it was configured in a nominal mode, with its 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 potential 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. Also, there was another loss over Syria in 2020. “Parts of the MQ-9 have been exploited and shared elsewhere for the past several years,” says Deptula.

And the DOD could still be trying to recover the drone that was shot down this month. “We are reviewing options,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Gen. Pat Ryder said during a news briefing Thursday.

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

Possible options for salvaging the MQ-9 likely include plans prepared by the Supervisor of Diving and Salvage in the Naval Directorate of Marine Engineering. This office oversees a warehouse full of deep-sea recovery equipment, including a family of autonomous and remote-controlled vehicles, and a portable lifting system. These machines work together to find wreckage and pull it up 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, is in Largo, Md. – far from the remains of the downed drone. If the US conducts a salvage mission, just getting there will take a significant amount of time. First, the military must hire a merchant ship in the Black Sea to accommodate the equipment, which will need to be temporarily welded to the ship’s deck. Then it takes longer to hunt and haul the wreck up. In other words, there will be no recovery in the US any time soon.

As for Russia, little is known about its deep-water salvage capabilities. But any such mission would likely involve towing the 36-foot-long, 4,900-pound plane through thousands of feet of water — if it’s still in one piece. If it broke when smashed into the water, salvage would require combing the seabed for pieces scattered across many square miles. This is no small matter for anyone.

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