Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepted a US Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) MQ-9 Reaper UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle) operating in international airspace over the Black Sea on March 14. The Su-27s dumped fuel on the drone several times and flew in front of it “in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” according to a statement by the U.S. European Command, which also said one of the Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the MQ-9’s propeller at approximately 7:03 a.m. (CET), bringing it down in international waters. USEUCOM also released declassified footage of a Russian Su-27 aircraft conducting an unsafe intercept of the MQ-9 in international airspace over the Black Sea.
The US generally performs salvage operations to prevent the wreckage of aircraft carrying critical weapons and sensors, such as UAVs used in ISR missions, from falling into the hands of adversaries such as Russia and China. Fear of reverse engineering and copying advanced technologies has led the US to seek to locate and recover such wreckage before its rivals do. The US believes this is necessary to maintain its technological edge and prevent valuable defense secrets from being compromised.
For example, in July 2020 a US Navy MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter crashed off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, during a training exercise, injuring five crew members. The crash site was at a depth of about 19,075 feet (5,814 meters). The US Navy used the CURV 21 remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in its recovery.
The CURV-21, a 6,400-pound ROV, was designed for deep ocean salvage operations up to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) of seawater. The vehicle has various advanced technologies, including fiber-optic umbilical cables, continuous transmission frequency modulation (CTFM) sonar for range finding and profile formation, and high-resolution cameras. It also can be controlled in all six degrees of motion, with auto-control functions for depth, altitude and heading. CURV-21 is transportable for use on vessels of opportunity worldwide and can accommodate customized tool packages for mission-specific operations. However, there is no US Navy warship in the Black Sea due to the Montreux Convention.
Recognizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “war,” Turkey closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian and Ukrainian warships, invoking Article 19 of the Montreux Convention. Under Article 19, warships belonging to belligerent powers may not pass through the channels. On Feb. 28, 2022 Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the situation had escalated to war, adding, “We have informed all Black Sea littoral states and non-littoral states that the straits are closed to warships.”
According to Nikolai Patrushev, the Kremlin’s Security Council secretary, Moscow will try to recover the downed US drone in the Black Sea. Patrushev expressed uncertainty about the feasibility of such an operation but stressed the importance of trying to retrieve the wreckage. In an interview with state television, he said he was unsure if it was possible, but “it’s definitely true that we need to and are trying.”
Ukraine’s military has raised concerns over the growing naval activity of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea since Tuesday. Military reports suggest that more Russian ships have been deployed in scattered formations, indicating that they may be searching for the wreckage of the MQ-9 Reaper that was downed on Tuesday.
Should the US decide to launch a salvage operation in the Black Sea, deploying an offshore supply vessel (OSV) would be required to host the CURV-21 remotely operated vehicle. However, the presence of Russian warships in the Black Sea Fleet could pose a significant challenge to the operation, potentially harass the OSV and impede its progress.
If the US considers options for locating and recovering the wreckage of the MQ-9 Reaper drone, cooperation with Turkey may present a viable solution. The Turkish Navy’s submarine rescue mother ship, the TCG Alemdar, is currently the most suitable vessel for such operations in the Black Sea.
The TCG Alemdar has state-of-the-art technology and advanced rescue and salvage operations systems, including deep-sea diving systems, sonar systems and ROVs that can be deployed to conduct underwater surveys and recovery operations. It has a maximum speed of 18 knots and a range of 6,000 nautical miles, making it suitable for extended missions in open waters. The TR-1000 ROV, operated from the TCG Alemdar, has a depth rating of up to 1,000 meters, which is sufficient for locating the wreckage of the MQ-9 drone in the Black Sea. The ROV is equipped with advanced sensors and cameras, which can provide high-resolution seafloor images and precisely locate objects of interest. Additionally, the TCG Alemdar can accommodate the CURV 21 ROV if the US chooses to transport it to Turkey via cargo plane. This would enable the US to deploy the CURV 21 from the TCG Alemdar and conduct underwater search and recovery operations to locate the wreckage of the MQ-9 drone.
Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 Air Defense System from Russia, coupled with the close relationship between the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has caused a significant strain in the relationship between Turkey and the United States. However, the Erdoğan government now has a crucial opportunity to mend the rift and rebuild mutual trust.
By utilizing diplomatic and military channels, Turkey can offer the US administration the support of the TCG Alemdar in the search for the MQ-9 wreckage and the deployment of the CURV 21 to the TCG Alemdar if necessary. Such an offer would undoubtedly be well received by the US and represent a crucial step in improving relations between the two countries.
Not only would this move be a positive step towards restoring trust, it would also serve as a valuable propaganda tool for President Erdoğan ahead of upcoming elections in May. The ball is now in Turkey’s court, and it remains to be seen whether the Erdoğan administration will seize this opportunity to improve relations and enhance its domestic and international standing.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.