Russia has started challenging US participation in the conflict in Ukraine, increasing the likelihood of an uncontrolled escalation.
The US has been participating in the Ukrainian conflict since 2014. Much of the US participation is direct, but some participation is through proxy vassal states in NATO, including former great powers UK, France, and Germany. (In the following text, a reference to the US implies the US and its NATO proxies.)
Existing US Participation
Without officially putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, the US is participating in practically all aspects of the conflict – training, weapons and ammunition supply, airborne air surveillance (using E-3 AWACS), airborne and space-based ISR, communication, command and control, live data link streaming to air defense (AD) systems during active operations.
British, French, and US service personnel are stationed at Ukrainian air and naval bases operating drones, programming weapons such as JDAM glide bombs, Storm Shadow, and Scalp missiles; operating AD systems such as Patriot and NASAMS and operating maritime and airborne drones.
The diversity of weapon systems inducted into the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) and the short span of time in which they have been inducted makes it highly likely that most high-technology weapons systems operationally deployed within Ukrainian territory are manned by US/NATO personnel.
It’s also highly likely that the weapon systems continue to be in the inventory of the supplying nation even after they are operationally deployed in Ukraine. Such an arrangement would simplify the provisioning of spares for the weapon systems from the donor/owner country.
Transfer of the weapon system to Ukraine and provisioning for the spares would be a logistics nightmare that Ukraine would need a lot of trained manpower to handle, manpower that it likely doesn’t have. There is also the question of trust in logistics management knowing the Ukrainian proclivity for corruption.
Besides warfighters deployed in Ukraine, thousands of offshore US service personnel stationed in the US and other NATO nations are actively participating in the conflict, analyzing large volumes of data streaming in from US (Topaz radar imaging and Crystal optical imaging) satellites and drones (RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper).
Ukrainian Focus On Crimea
Following the failure of its counter-offensive launched on June 4 to make rapid headway, Ukraine has focused on maritime and airborne drone attacks on Crimea in a seemingly desperate effort to keep the morale of its forces and citizens high.
Drone attacks are often coordinated with missile attacks on Crimean bridges, fuel depots, and AD units.
Typically, before such an attack, US airborne and space-based ISR assets mount intense surveillance of the Crimean peninsula to select targets and identify the AD systems deployed for their protection.
Ukrainian fixed-wing drones fly into Crimean airspace to force the Russian AD systems to “light up.” US RC-135 Elint aircraft and RQ-4 and MQ-9 drones record and analyze radar signals.
Through intense surveillance, the US is able to detect gaps in Russian defenses caused by technical breakdowns or redeployment. Ukraine then exploits the gaps using Storm Shadow, Scalp, S-200, Grom-2, and Tu-141 Striz.
More recently, Ukraine has used its Neptune anti-shipping missile and Brimstone-2 missile to exploit gaps in Russian defenses. (The Neptune missile has likely been adapted for land attack roles by fitting an active radar seeker with US help.)
Ukraine’s Coordinated Strikes
Lately, Ukraine has started to coordinate its missile strikes through identified gaps with surveillance drones that act as bait and induce Russian air defenses to light up and reveal their position.
The drones are also capable of radar and optical imaging, allowing them to provide real-time updates on the target area as well as provide damage assessment from the missile strike.
The following two recent incidents are illustrative of Ukrainian strikes that are being actively supported by NATO ISR assets.
On August 23, 2023 morning, Ukraine released drone footage of its anti-shipping missile striking an S-300 AD system in Cape Tarkhankut in Crimea. The missile used was a Brimstone-2 anti-tank missile launched from a Ukrainian boat.
The attack and partial destruction of the target were likely filmed by a Portugal-supplied Tekever drone flying at an altitude near the target area.
A day earlier, Russia had scrambled a fighter aircraft to intercept MQ-9 Reaper and TB2 Bayraktar drones conducting aerial reconnaissance over the waters of the Black Sea close to the Crimean Peninsula.
On August 28, crews of the 31st Air Force and Air Defense Divisions shot down two Tekever reconnaissance drones that were monitoring the situation on the Crimean Peninsula.
Shortly afterward, the RuMoD announced that Russian AD forces had intercepted a cruise missile over the waters of the Black Sea off the coast of the Republic of Crimea. The cruise missile was later identified as the Neptune.
Tekever drones are technically advanced and very capable. For the August 28 attack, Ukraine used two different variants of the Tekever drone.
A Tekever AR5 launched from south of the Odessa region flew over the sea, headed towards Cape Tarkhankut. It was reportedly shot down southwest of Razdolnoye.
A Tekever AR3 reportedly took off from the Nikolaev region and flew right through Russian-controlled airspace of the Kherson region undetected to the Karkinitsky Bay and Crimea before being shot down by a Pantsir AD missile system 23 km north of Evpatoria.
The Tekever AR5 is a SATCOM-equipped MALE drone with a 50 kg payload (optical & SAR imaging) and 20 hr endurance. It can take off and land on unprepared surfaces. Being relatively large, it can be easily tracked by AD radars, which is why Ukraine routed it over the sea.
The Tekever AR3 is a 25 kg drone with a 4 kg payload that can be launched using a catapult, or it can be configured to take off vertically using a detachable quadcopter layout propulsion unit.
The AR3 is the smallest UAS in the market to feature a high-performance, dual-side-looking SAR. The drone has a flight speed of 75-100 kph, flight endurance of up to 16 hrs, and a communication range of 100 km.
Due to its small size, the AR3 is difficult to track using AD radars, which would explain why it was able to slip through Russian ground-based AD in the Kherson region.
Russia Challenging US Drone Surveillance
The very obvious and repeated participation of US drones in the preparation and execution of Ukrainian attacks has likely forced Russia to challenge its operation in close proximity to Crimea.
All Russian AD systems are mobile, some more so than others. The Tor and Pantsir short-range AD systems are very mobile, the Buk is fairly mobile, and the S-300 is reasonably mobile. Tor, Pantsir, and Buk systems are often deployed to protect S-300 systems.
The mobility of Russian AD systems necessitates frequent surveillance. It’s likely that the US uses RQ-4 and MQ-9 drones, both of which have radar and optical imaging capability, to provide last-minute updates on the location of Russian AD systems.
Russia may have taken a decision to obstruct such drone reconnaissance on the pretext of protecting its airspace.
In the past, one such obstruction resulted in the loss of a US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone. On March 14, 2023, a Russian fighter jet forced down a US Air Force drone over the Black Sea. Two Russian Su-27 fighters intercepted the drone and obstructed its operations by maneuvering in close proximity and dumping fuel on the Reaper.
The US claims that one of the two Russian Su-27s collided with the MQ-9 Reaper drone, damaging the drone’s propeller. (As a result, the drone crashed into the Black Sea. Some reports claim that Russia recovered the MQ-9 for study.)
Russia, however, claims that the drone crashed because its operator lost control while maneuvering the drone.
According to the RuMoD, “On August 22, 2023, two unmanned aerial vehicles, MQ-9 Reaper and TB2 Bayraktar, conducting aerial reconnaissance over the waters of the Black Sea close to the Crimean Peninsula, were detected by the airspace control means of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
“In order to prevent a possible violation of the State border of the Russian Federation and to counter UAVs conducting radio-technical reconnaissance, two Russian fighter jets from on-duty air defense forces were raised.
“As a result of the actions, the UAVs changed their flight direction and left the areas where aerial reconnaissance was being conducted.”
The Russian statement clearly states that the interception was intended to “counter UAVs conducting radio-technical reconnaissance.”
On August 27, the RuMod reported that “a Russian Su-30 fighter jet prevented a USAF MQ-9A Reaper reconnaissance UAV from violating Russia’s state border over the Black Sea.”
On August 28, the RuMoD reported, “Over the south-western part of the Black Sea, the airspace monitoring systems of the Russian Aerospace Forces detected a flight in the direction of the State border of the Russian Federation by unmanned aerial vehicles of the USAF MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk carrying out aerial reconnaissance in the area of the Crimean peninsula.
“In order to prevent a possible violation of the State border of the Russian Federation and to counter the conduct of radio-technical reconnaissance by UAVs, two Russian fighter jets from the on-duty air defense forces were scrambled.
“As a result of the actions of the on-duty air defense forces, reconnaissance UAVs of the United States Air Force changed their flight direction and left the areas where air reconnaissance was being conducted.”
From the statements of the RuMoD, it’s clear that Russia will challenge US drone reconnaissance of the Crimean peninsula from this point onwards, It remains to be seen how well this goes down with the US leadership.
What is clear, however, is that the world is closer to a bigger conflict than it has ever been since February 24, 2022.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
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