Airspace Violations

by Joshua Foust on 4/22/2008 · 4 comments

Last year, Georgia was abuzz with accusations against Russia for its military jets supposedly violating its airspace and possibly even attacking radio stations. Now, Georgian officials are hopping mad over accusations that Russia shot down one of their surveillance drones. They even have video:

The video is fuzzy enough to where the plane—which is only seen to have swept wings and twin tails—could very well be a MiG-29 Fulcrum. According to Wikipedia (my subscription to Jane’s has lapsed, alas), Georgia only flies the Sukhoi SU-25 as a fixed-wing attack aircraft—those have a single tail fin. With the understanding that that reference carries with it certain caveats as to its reliability, there is also a link in the Wikipedia entry on Abkhazia’s Air Force that claims they fly Sukhoi SU-27 fighter planes.

This is where the story becomes more interesting.

If this is true—and without access to better databases on the world’s military, it might not be—then the Russia’s claims that is was an Abkhazian aircraft that downed the drone might actually be true. Without better resolution on the video, which won’t happen so long as the only copies available are filmed secondhand from a Defence spokesman, it’s tough to tell if the aircraft firing the missile was a MiG-29 or an SU-27. Georgie certainly wants the attack to be Russian and not Abkkazian, for obvious reasons: if Abkhazia has begun shooting down Georgian drones, then the olive branch of sorts President Saakashvili extended to Abkhazia last month would be null and void. It would also play into Russian claims that Georgian possession of Abkhazia is sparking the conflict, rather than Russian meddling or interference.

Of course, this is highly unlikely. Abkhazian leaders have claimed the plane that shot the drone down was an L-39, a much smaller single-tail aircraft used mostly as a trainer in Abkhazia and not really a combat plane. Assuming the stories of Abkhazian Su-27s are wrong, which is fair given the Abkhazian insistence on its use of the L-39, and especially given the radar records indicating the plane took off from a supposedly-closed former Soviet airbase in Gudauta, it is safe to assume that a Russian plane, and not an Abkhazian or Georgian one, shot down that drone (Russia has a very sketchy history with Gudauta).

But it is even more interesting than that. The drone might not have been on a peaceful reconnaissance of Georgian territory, or however it is the Defence Ministry is spinning the mission. Georgia’s drones are Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 drones—(Israel makes some of the world’s best and most capable UAVs)—and those are not always peaceful. For one, the drones are meant to do tactical reconnaissance—much like they’re used in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or the U.S.-Mexican border. In function, it is similar to the U.S.’s own MQ-1 Predator.

This means the Hermes 450 can carry weapons—two Rafael Spike-ER missiles, a missile similar to the AGM-114 Hellfire fired by Predators—if the stories and second-hand analysis are to be believed. The big difference is, the Spike-ER was designed from the start to be used in urban counterinsurgency and low-intensity conflicts, which is somewhat like what Georgia faces in its western breakaway province. This is how Vladimir Putin can wonder aloud at the “combat drone” flying over Abkhazia, even though all indications are that this particular drone was unarmed.

Alas, like the other scuffles between Russian aircraft and Georgian sovereignty in its two separatist provinces, it is unlikely any concrete resolution will come to the incident. Given the politics of the situation, and the nature of this particular attack, it is unlikely conclusive proof of a Russian plane violating Georgian airspace and shooting down a Georgian military aircraft—incidentally, an act of war—will ever come to light.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Onnik Krikorian April 24, 2008 at 4:04 am

Assuming that Abkhazia has SU-27s, there’s just one problem. They claim that it was one of their single-tailed planes that shot down the drone.

Garry Kupalba, deputy defence minister of the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia, told reporters the drone had been shot down by an “L-39 aircraft of the Abkhaz Air Force”.

Onnik Krikorian April 24, 2008 at 4:06 am

Ok, sorry, I see you already pointed that out. Scratch my comment.

cowboy April 24, 2008 at 5:59 am

but gotta admit it looks cool how it was shot down!!!

Michael Hancock April 24, 2008 at 1:21 pm

The coolness of the video will fade if it is taken as an act of war. I’ve been reading La Russophobe lately, and as you can tell from the title, it’s a blog that plays well to anyone’s fears of a renewed attempt at Russian world domination. The West seems unconcerned with Russia’s actions in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Russia is determined to keep them in their own sphere of influence, no matter what autonomy or independence those states might wish for. This kind of stunt is good news for no one except Putin.

Georgia should be given some slack about their ability to fly drones over their own air space. Just because Abkhazia is separatist doesn’t mean it’s not a part of Georgia anymore – they should be well within their rights to fly whatever they want without fear of Russian air combat.

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