Soviet-era unmanned aircraft crashes in Croatia

12 March 2022, 06:51 PM

On March 10, a Tu-141 Strizh unmanned aircraft crashed near the Croatian capital of Zagreb. No casualties were reported. There are indications that it was launched from the areas engulfed by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. 

It’s unclear who is responsible for its launch, and why such a large aircraft was not intercepted by AA defenses of NATO countries.

Echoes of war

Jarun is a picturesque southern suburb of Zagreb, frequented by the city’s holidaymakers. At around 2300 on March 10, something massive crashed down there, with thundering noise. Metal debris covered the street with a three-meter-wide crater in it. Several cars were damaged.

Video of day

Locals found two parachutes nearby.

After arriving at the crash site, Zagreb’s Mayor Tomislav Tomašević said that “given the time of day, it’s a miracle that nobody was killed.”

After cordoning off the premises, police concluded the are contains no explosive or flammable material.

Tyler Rogoway, a contributor to defense-focused website The War Zone, was the first to correctly identify the crashed aircraft.

“After close examination of the visual evidence, The War Zone strongly believes this was actually a Tu-141 "Strizh" reconnaissance drone that must have severely malfunctioned and crossed over the entirety of Hungary or parts of neighboring countries and into Croatia from Ukraine,” Rogoway wrote.

“It has been reported that Ukraine has been putting the high-speed, Soviet-era drones to work in recent days following Russia's invasion of the country. Ukraine is the only known current operator of the Tu-141.”

No credible explanations of the aircraft being so far away from Ukraine were produced. Croatian newspaper Jutarnji list initially suggested that perhaps the incident could be explained with Croatian Jarun sharing the name with the village of Jarun near Zhytomyr, Ukraine.

“Perhaps Ukrainians have incorrectly programmed the reconnaissance craft and it flew towards the wrong Jarun,” the newspaper wrote, before withdrawing the suggestion as fake.

Soviet legacy

Tactical reconnaissance aircraft Tu-141 Strizh was designed by the Tupolev engineering bureau in 1970s and manufactured in Kharkiv.

Tu-141 is designed to provide reconnaissance as deep as 400 kilometers behind enemy lines, flying at the speed of 1,000 km/h. Its maximum range is 1,000 kilometers. Strizh takes off from a launcher, and lands by deploying parachutes from its aft (this explains the two parachutes found in Zagreb).

According to Wikipedia, Tu-141 was used by Russian and Ukrainian armed forces after the collapse of USSR. Recent use of the aircraft has been attributed to Ukrainian military, I particular to an unmanned aircraft regiment in Odessa oblast.

How could NATO have missed it?

On March 11, Croatia’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting that concluded with a short statement.

“All relevant services were activated following the crash of a military unmanned reconnaissance air craft, which apparently entered Croatian air space from Hungarian airspace, at the altitude of 1,300 meters, flying at the speed of 700 kilometers per hour,” the message said.

Danko Petrin, the chief aviation accidents investigator at the Croatian Accident Investigation Agency, told Jutarnij List he was at a loss, trying to explain the six-ton ‘drone’ flying over Europe.

“Modern drones are always in contact with the base. But this was an outdated model created in the Soviet Union in 1970. There were cases when this type of aircraft could get out of control. I assume that this is also the case here because such aircraft are not missiles that are sent as weapons, but their goal is to return to the base to submit the collected data. After all, it’s unclear what exactly she could record at night. It is obvious that it was a mistake in the flight programming or that the aircraft got out of control, but that has yet to be determined by the investigation,” he said.

In an interview with the local TV channel N1, a retired Croatian military pilot Ivan Selak suggested the Tu-141 crashed after running out of fuel. It flew a thousand kilometers, and surprisingly, it was not picked up by radar, he noted. To Selak’s surprise, the craft spent 8-9 minutes in Croatian airspace, and flew over Hungary for even longer.

“The UAV flew about 1300 km, and the Hungarians did not notice it,” said Selak.

“Its radar signature is also not small.”

Since both Croatia and Hungary are NATO members, the decision to intercept the potentially dangerous aircraft should have been taken by the allied command center, according to Selak.

“NATO’s integrated air defense system should be activated within 15-20 minutes, after which fighters should take off,” he told Vecernij List.

Security expert Željko Cvrtila said that NATO’s anti-missile defense has failed to react accordingly.

“This means that Russians could send a similar jet our way, and it would reach Zagreb undetected,” Cvrtila said, alleging that Russian could have seized control over the Ukrainian aircraft.

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Croatian President Zoran Milanovic said that Crotia’s radars have picked up the Tu-141, but there was not enough time to react, according to Milanovic’s press office.

“The facts will be established. How is it possible for an old-style aircraft to spend more than one hour in the sky over NATO member countries, and no one notices,” Milanovic said.

“It’s dubious that we could have done anything about it, given the level of our equipment.”

The country’s PV, Andrej Plenković, said that radars have marked the target as not dangerous.

Hungary is conducting its own investigation of the incident, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Facebook. Romanian Defense Ministry said that the aircraft spent less than three minutes in the country’s airspace, and could be identified in time.

Responding to the Croatian press, NATO said that Alliance’s missile defense system had recorded the flight path of the object that had fallen in Zagreb.

Ukrainian response

Markiyan Lubkivsky, former Ukrainian ambassador to Croatia and now the adviser to the Minister of Defense, told Croatian public broadcaster HRT that the drone is not Ukrainian.

“Ukrainian aircraft have different markings,” he said.

Lubkivsky added that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry and the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces are preparing a statement on the incident.

While on air of Ukrainian TV stations, Lubkivsky said that the drone’s wreckage bears red stars – the insignia of Russian Air Force.

Aleksey Arestovich, adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, told Ukrainian media that the country does not have drones capable of covering such a distance.

“Most likely, (this is) a drone of the operational-tactical level, Russian, which was launched from our territory. It lost control and flew all the way to Croatia,” Arestovich suggested.

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