The leaked US military documents continue to reveal new information. According to the documents, the US RQ-170 Sentinel stealth spy drone and a host of NATO fighter jets, including the Mirage-2000, undertook sorties to gather information on the Russian forces.
The leaked US military document states that the American RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drones may have flown at least nine sorties since September 2022 to gather information on Russian forces occupying the Crimean Peninsula and other places in the Black Sea region.
The US-led NATO alliance has made no bone of the fact that it was consistently conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over Ukraine and the Black Sea, which has become evident with the multiple encounters between NATO aircraft and the interceptors of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). The NATO allies reportedly pass on crucial intelligence gathered on these missions to Ukraine.
One of the first news outlets to report on the allegedly leaked paper was French Zone Militaire which was leaked online by Airman 1st Class Jack Douglas Teixeira of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Overall, it offers information on US and NATO aerial ISR missions in the Black Sea region between September 2022 and February 2023 against the backdrop of the Ukraine war.
If accurate, this would provide a unique window into the ongoing operational usage of these drones, also known as Wraiths, which are still shrouded in secrecy more than 15 years after the US military formally acknowledged their existence. The US military barely ever discloses the coordinates of this stealthy spy drone.
When questioned by the media on the use of these drones over Ukraine and adjoining areas, the United States declined to comment on the missions undertaken by their “ISR assets.”
The RQ-170 was deployed in Afghanistan to snoop on Osama Bin Laden during the 2011 raid, with huge operational success.
The RQ-170 Sentinel is a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It can take real-time battlefield photographs and send the information to the ground control station (GCS) via a line-of-sight (LOS) communication data link.
The Sentinels are equipped with various sensors, including active electronically scanned array radar with synthetic aperture imaging and ground-moving target indication capabilities, an electro-optical sensor ball, and electronic intelligence suites.
The use of this advanced spy drone, however, is plausible. The RQ-170 would provide a means of gathering intelligence with a reduced risk of detection. Since non-stealthy ISR planes are simpler to detect and track, an adversary may take further measures to conceal or modify their activities in response.
It is only feasible to deploy a stealth asset for intelligence gathering as they are largely protected, if not immune, to hostile air defense systems. Russia significantly increased its air defense capabilities in Crimea before it began its all-out invasion of Ukraine, adding more long-range S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems with powerful radars.
RQ-170s may be able to gather more detailed information about the placements of the opposing force, operational techniques, and other activities which could help Ukraine’s countermeasures.
Global Hawks, Rivet Joint, And Mirage-2000 Also Took Flights
Besides the information on the RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, the leaked document also offers insights into flights carried out by RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-9 Reaper drone sorties by the US Air Force and operations involving British RC-135W Rivet Joints and NATO Global Hawks.
These disclosures are significant because RQ-9 Reaper and the British RC-135W have been involved in confrontations with the Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet. In September 2022, a missile was fired by a Su-27 pilot on the RC-135W due to miscommunication. However, the missile reportedly malfunctioned and did not hit the British aircraft.
In another incident, a US MQ-9 Reaper drone went down into the Black Sea last month after the Su-27 sprayed fuel on the American drone, crossed it multiple times, and finally collided with its propeller. The incident exposed the extent of US drone operations in the region and their vulnerability.
However, a more intriguing disclosure is about the French Mirage-2000 fighter jets in carrying out reconnaissance activities. It also doesn’t appear that France has previously disclosed the employment of Mirage 2000 fighter jets for ISR, which they can do by carrying external reconnaissance pods.
Mirage-2000 fighter jets of the French Air Force are typically used for ground strike roles or carrying out interception or air defense missions. This makes their deployment for ISR missions uncanny.
Indian Air Force veteran and military expert Squadron Leader Vijainder K Thakur told EurAsian Times, “Most fighters can form reconnaissance, electronic eavesdropping, and electronic warfare using pods. Using the pods, they can perform tactical reconnaissance and electronic warfare. Aircraft such as the RC-135 perform theater-level ISR. The use of Mirage, 2000 is insignificant. The French Air Force likely deployed them for operational training. More likely, it was meant for participation.”
Before its combat debut during combat air patrols over Saudi Arabia, the Mirage 2000C performed escort missions for attack and reconnaissance over Kuwait and southern Iraq during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990–1991. The Mirage 2000C aircraft were later deployed for battle, returning to the Persian Gulf to reinforce the Operation Southern Watch-created no-fly zone.
In response to the fighting in the Balkans, they also took part in Operation Deny Flight. For the first time in a hostile environment, the Mirage 2000C aircraft participating in the air policing operations over Bosnia and Herzegovina conducted combat air patrols and dropped unguided bombs. The aircraft has since participated in several air policing missions in Europe.
However, the reconnaissance missions performed by this aircraft have rarely been made public by the French Air Force. Moreover, it is an old aircraft that has essentially been phased out of the French Air Force. At one point, there were reports that Ukraine might get the Mirage-2000 fighter as military aid.
Interestingly, the document’s map labels “typical” flight paths for British Rivet Joints, French Mirages, and US Air Force and NATO Global Hawks but not for the RQ-170 or MQ-9. Having said that, since the documents covered only the period up to February 2023, the current deployment of these aircraft is not known.