Using OSINT to Debunk the Russian Jet & US Drone Collision Video
Photo: Screenshot taken from the video showing tail markings on the drone.
A video has emerged on social media allegedly showing yesterday's encounter between the U.S. MQ-9 drone and a pair of Russian Su-27s over the Black Sea.
Using this footage, we are able to exclusively use publicly available information to confirm some of the details about the video in question and possibly help answer some outstanding questions about the downing of the drone over the Black Sea.
Is the video legitimate?
Before we start determining the details of the video itself, we must first assess its legitimacy. The original source of the video can be attributed to the popular pro-Russian telegram channel "FighterBomber".
The video itself shows a single Russian Flanker buzzing an MQ-9 Reaper high above the clouds. The cloud cover makes it impossible to identify any geographical features, and only one Russian pilot is shown.
Many skeptics initially assumed that the footage was actually from the popular video game Digital Combat Simulator (DCS), like many of the faked "Ghost of Kyiv" videos turned out to be at the onset of the war in Ukraine.
This, however, doesn't appear to be the case. The MQ-9 Reaper in DCS is available via third-party mods and the available vehicle skins don't match what is shown in the video. The propeller in the footage can also be seen spinning, a feature that is nearly impossible to accurately replicate in video games.
We can also gather some clues from the original Telegram post, written in Russian.
This is loosely translates to:
So it appears that the original source of the video isn't even claiming that this footage was taken from yesterday's events. Instead, they are showing it as a way to better explain how a much faster Russian Su-27 might approach and intercept the slow-moving Reaper drone.
Logically, that would mean that this footage is from a different Russian flyby. Even so, let's take the initial post at face value and unpack everything that we can using opensource intelligence (OSINT).
How was the weather?
We know the precise time that the event occurred, thanks to a press release from the United States European Command (EUCOM). At 7:03 AM CET, the MQ-9 was struck by the Russian jet, forcing it to crash land in the Black Sea.
Using commercial satellite imagery, we are able to identify that there was some cloud cover at this time.
Screenshot from zoom.earth
If the video was to be believed, the interaction likely occurred near the Crimean peninsula where the clouds were the densest.
What did the metadata say?
Unlike many other social media platforms, Telegram does not automatically wipe metadata from files. Pulling the video from Telegram and running it through the open-source forensics platform Autopsy resulted in the following:
Unfortunately, any helpful metadata was likely scraped prior to uploading, resulting in an investigative dead end.
What do we know about the drone?
So the legitimacy of the video being from yesterday's events is questionable at best, but we can continue to try and identify some of the interesting details surrounding this footage.
The first thing that stood out immediately was the complete lack of discernable markings on the MQ-9.
Nearly all operational MQ-9 drones in the U.S. fleet feature ample markings including national insignia, serial numbers, tail codes, and more. These are typically displayed across the entirety of the aircraft, including on the fuselage, for easy identification in-air.
Here is what a typical Air Force MQ-9 looks like:
Photo: US Air Force Photo/Paul Ridgeway
Interestingly, the MQ-9 in the video features very minimal markings, with only a visible serial number ([?]294) on the tail.
Rarely is the national insignia missing, especially while operating overseas.
During manufacturing test flights it is common to feature little-to-no artwork on the aircraft, but the Reaper in question was undoubtedly in international airspace (given that a Russian fighter jet could fly right up to it).
Photo: MQ-9 in a testing environment from manufacturer GA-ASI
One way to narrow our search is to identify the type of payload that the drone was carrying, and cross referencing that with other known ISR platforms in the region.
When looking at U.S. military press releases of air bases in the Black Sea area of operation we are able to hone in on some key clues.
The payload configuration, as well as the artistically barren body (besides the serial numbers on the tail), appear on numerous MQ-9s featured in a video release from the 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii, Romania.
The release states that these Airmen are from the "31st Expeditionary Operations Group, Detachment 1, who support Agile Combat Employment concepts, fly freedom of maneuver missions and integrate with joint and coalition forces in the region".
These MQ-9s are strikingly similar in appearance to the one from the video and despite not finding the exact serial number featured in the Russian video, the other Reapers appear to be a match.
This alone doesn't lead to the conclusion that the downed drone originated from the 71st Air Base in Romania, nor does it conclude that the MQ-9 from the video is from there. It does, however, give additional evidence to help pinpoint a likely area of operations.
Where does that leave us?
The video appears to be real and not from a video game or CGI.
The source of the video never claims that it was from the March 14, 2023 incident between two Su-27s and an MQ-9 over the Black Sea.
Similarly outfitted and styled MQ-9s have been operating in nearby Romania.
U.S. ISR aircraft regularly fly over the Black Sea, and it is likely that Russian aircraft shadow their flights.
It is possible that this video is from another similar ISR mission that was simply never reported to the public.
There is plenty of more OSINT to be done - extrapolate further on the MQ-9 serial number shown, utilize flight tracking (or marine traffic during recovery) to pinpoint location, etc.