NATO QRA missions lose credibility after a Russian Su-27 downs an MQ-9 Reaper drone

Unless the drone was flying in the "Russian part of the Black Sea near Crimea", the NATO air police had all the business to show up and challenge the Russian Su-27s.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

According to a senior American military official, the US MQ-9 “Reaper” drone, which was apparently intercepted by two Russian fighter jets on Tuesday and hit by one of them, took off from Romania.

Although the name of the Romanian base has not been revealed, it is most likely the Emanoil Ionescu air base in Câmpia Turzii, which has been significantly renovated with NATO funding in recent years where NATO military forces routinely conduct joint missions and drills.

The Dacian Reaper bilateral exercises began in 2020 at the Cluj County air base, which also houses the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft.

The capabilities of the MQ-9 Reaper may give real-time information on every aspect of Russia’s military operations, including ship movements in the Black Sea and missile launches aimed against Ukrainian sites.

The incident between two Russian jets and an American drone resulted in the unmanned aircraft’s crash in the Black Sea, which looks to be the most important publicly acknowledged clash between the US and Russia in over a year.

According to John Kirby of the US National Security Council (NSC), other intercepts had occurred “even in recent weeks,” but this was unique.

The encounter lasted roughly 30-40 minutes, according to the Pentagon.

Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, stated that there was no direct communication between the Russian and American military at the time.

US officials say the Russian Su-27s involved “probably” suffered some damage, indicating that a collision was not deliberate.

After the collision, American remote pilots were forced to crash it down in the Black Sea.

General Ryder did not say where it landed or whether the Russian navy was trying to recover it.

Audio recordings circulating on social media indicate that some Russian recovery operation was underway. But this still needs to be confirmed.

Certainly, Washington would be upset if such sensitive monitoring technology came into the hands of Russia. The United States has refused to sell it to Ukraine for the same reason.

NATO QRA was found wanting again

NATO has been policing the Black sea since the limited Russian war in Ukraine began. NATO has Quick Reaction Alerts (QRA) and air policing detachments stationed in Romania. 

On March 11, 2022, a UAV crashed in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and was identified as a Soviet reconnaissance drone Tu-141 Strizh (Swift), also known as VR-2. According to some reports, it was launched from the Russian-Ukrainian combat zone. It is still unknown who launched it and why, as well as why NATO monitoring systems failed to detect such a huge aircraft. The six-ton Tu-141 Strizh surveillance drone suffered a catastrophic failure and flew across Hungary and parts of Romania before landing in Croatia. The distance between the Ukrainian border and Zagreb is over 350 km. The Tu-141 Strizh drone, manufactured in the Soviet Union, flew over the airspace of three NATO member countries at a speed of 700 km/h and a height of 1300 m without being detected by NATO radars.

The downing of the MQ9 Reaper also raises the air policing aspects of NATO. Unless the drone was flying in the “Russian part of the Black Sea near Crimea”, the NATO air police had all the business to show up and challenge the Russian Su-27s. To comprehend the colossal failure of the NATO QRA, one must first comprehend the assets stationed here.

Swarming with AWACS and Eurofighters

On Tuesday, January 17, an unspecified number of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aerial radars, or three according to military sources cited by the German news agency DPA, would monitor the skies over Romania, including the Alliance’s Black Sea region. These aircraft were sent to Romania’s Air Transport Base 90 at Otopeni.

In response to Russia’s limited operations in Ukraine, the fourteen AWACS aircraft of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, permanently based in Geilenkirchen, Germany, near Aachen, have been conducting regular patrols across Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea since February of last year.

AWACS can identify aircraft within 400 kilometres. The “all-seeing eyes in the sky” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) can contain genuine command centres where coordinated observations can be converted into response strategies and relayed to the air fleet for rapid intervention operations.

Meanwhile, six Typhoon fighter jets from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire are stationed at Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base near Constanța, Romania, only 110 kilometres from the Ukrainian border and adjacent to the Black Sea.

Operation Biloxi is part of NATO’s commitment to protect and reassure Eastern European member states following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Italy and Germany have also provided Romania with four and six Eurofighter Typhoons, respectively.

A boast made by Flotilla Lieutenant Lewis Traver to BBC describes the proximity of the NATO Rapid intervention force to the conflict zone. 

To summarise, Lewis Traver, their typical operating region, is close to Snake Island. Their exposure to the battle between Russia and Ukraine opened their eyes significantly. Clearly, they are not directly involved in the conflict, but it is extremely near to home and NATO territory. Eurofighter Typhoon is intended as a deterrence to dissuade Russian aggression, and he believes it is doing so. The mission of the Typhoon jets is to deliver Russia the strongest possible message while patrolling the eastern frontier of NATO.

According to Dutch Holland, a 45-year-old commander in charge of the entire mission, who also spoke to the same source, they provide airborne deterrence – working with NATO partners to ensure that they are extremely powerful, prepared, and able to act as necessary. There has always been Russian activity in this region, but the activity levels are increasing. There were occasions when our fast reaction alert was issued as much as three times each day.

Although the MQ9 Reaper and Su-27 engagement lasted around 40 minutes, neither the NATO QRA nor air policing were present.

The United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, also called the Montego Bay Agreement of 1925, divided the airspace above the international waters of the Black Sea into cake slices for each riparian nation. Romania controls the slice from 12 nautical miles offshore to the national airspace, up to 48 and 66 nautical miles offshore on the largest chunk. Flight plans and traffic controllers are filed in this perimeter.

Following Crimea’s accession [or annexation] to Russia in 2014, Russia assumed all the rights and duties of the coastal State concerning the waters adjacent to the peninsula and internationally. Russia unconditionally affirmed its status as a coastal State concerning waters surrounding Crimea.

Russian Su-27 downs US MQ9 Reaper video


  1. Looking at the video the collision was the result of poor flying by the Sukhoi pilot – I suspect there were two aircraft – as is usual – and the wingman poorly executed the approach to the drone. Errors are apparent in the video – alpha too high – probably close to buffet onset at the speed (probably just over 200 kts at an altitude of close to 35000 ft (the altitude is my guess ). Landing speed for a Su-27 is probably about 140-160kts depending on conditions and some skill /experience is required to fly an airplane at this altitude and speed – this would be not recommended in aircraft operating guidelines. The requisite skill is not demonstrated in the video with the result that that 27’s left rear horizontal stabilizer (or slightly inboard) contacted the drone’s propellor – the 27 was in a low energy state with poor manouverability and the pilot had a very poor view of the drone (due to high alpha) . For safety/operational reasons it is unlikely that the same aircraft dumped fuel twice (most fighters can do this because MTOW > safe landing weight) so again I suspect a pair of ac were involved. This was a dumb accident that might have more serious consequences.


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