A strange—and apparently armed—Tu-141 drone struck Zagreb, the Croatian capital city, just days ago in a strike that has many analysts scratching their heads.
Croatian media explained that “most of the unmanned Soviet-made military aircraft that crashed in Zagreb near the student housing … was pulled out.” Furthermore, the Croatian minister of defense “confirmed that traces of explosives and parts of an air bomb were found in the crater, which says that it was not a reconnaissance aircraft.”
“An investigation follows that should reveal all the details of an unprecedented incident that just by sheer luck did not end in a great tragedy.” The report added that “the bomb found in the aircraft weighed up to 120 kilograms,” or nearly 265 pounds.
It is believed that Ukraine is currently the only operator of the Soviet-era reconnaissance drone. However, it is possible that Russia had some in storage, given the drone’s Soviet-era origins. Croatian news sources explained that the drone’s warhead detonated after impact while at least partially buried in the ground, significantly reducing the size of the blast compared to an above-ground explosion.
Though the drone does reportedly carry flight recording equipment, that information is likely less protected than the “black boxes” carried in commercial airliners and might not have survived the force of the explosion. Still, the wreckage was quickly carried away for analysis.
Where the drone began its flight remains, for now, a decidedly interesting mystery.
Into NATO Airspace
What is perhaps most concerning about the strike is that the armed drone managed to fly to Zagreb, several hundred miles within NATO and EU territory, leading to questions about the security of NATO’s airspace.
Further complicating the situation are reports that the drone deployed parachutes prior to crashing into the ground in what is normally part of the aircraft’s recovery procedure. In addition, a similar aircraft recently struck a target in Crimea.
It could also be possible that unspent fuel exploded after impact and gave the impression of an explosive payload, a distinct possibility given that the Tu-141 normally carries reconnaissance equipment and is designed to be recoverable and reusable.
Many questions swirl around this mysterious drone. Who launched it? Where was it launched from? And did it in fact carry an explosive payload rather than reconnaissance and surveillance equipment? Perhaps most importantly: why was it not shot down or detected before it crashed?
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.