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If a group of soldiers is outpowered in combat, they can wave a white flag to signal that they surrender, and by this attempt to save their lives. It is an agreed symbol that, as far as I know, is enshrined in the Geneva pact.

What if a group of jet fighters is outpowered by enemy jet fighters - is there an agreed symbol that allows them to signal that they wish to surrender?

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    Similar question on Aviation SE.- aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/23381/… Mar 9, 2022 at 13:49
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    I think the white flag was defined in the Hague conventions rather than the Geneva convention, see article 32 here.
    – CDJB
    Mar 9, 2022 at 15:11
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    Similar questions could be asked about submarines or everything where leaning out and waving a flag is impractical. For example, a whole aircraft carrier wishing to surrender would probably need a quite large flag to be seen from typical distances at sea. Mar 9, 2022 at 16:13
  • striking the colors is the option available to ships... although it is limited to the visibility range, which is not granted in modern warfare. From Wikipedia: In distinction to striking one's colors, hoisting a white flag, in itself, is not an indication of surrender. Rather, hoisting a white flag indicates a request for a truce in order to communicate with the enemy. Under the Geneva Conventions, persons carrying or waving a white flag are still not to be fired upon, nor are they allowed to open fire.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 10, 2022 at 8:09
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    @EralSegal-Halevi Successful surrender requires acceptance. In the case of airplanes, it's the surrendering of the airplane that is most interesting for the accepting party. Another POW is a burden, but an intact enemy aircraft is a win. Among pilots the most common way to indicate a desire for dialog is rocking the wings. Besides that, pretty much any aircraft is equipped with a radio transmitter that allows for communication.
    – user36811
    Mar 10, 2022 at 14:15

4 Answers 4

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The pilot of a fighter jet can surrender by ejecting and parachuting to the ground. The 1979 amendment to the Geneva Convention says:

Article 42.-Occupants of aircraft

  1. No person parachuting from an aircraft in distress shall be made the object of attack during his descent.
  2. Upon reaching the ground in territory controlled by an adverse Party, a person who has parachuted from an aircraft in distress shall be given an opportunity to surrender before being made the object of attack, unless it is apparent that he is engaging in a hostile act.
  3. Airborne troops are not protected by this Article.

So it would be a war crime to shoot down a pilot on a parachute, while it would not be a war crime to shoot down a paratrooper. To make that distinction clearer, military pilots usually have white parachutes while paratroopers have grey or olive parachutes.

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    Now you could of course ask "But what about the plane? Wouldn't that be wasteful?" well, all other means of surrender wouldn't imply that they just fly home either. The plane is a valuable war asset, so the other force would not allow it to remain in enemy hands after the pilot surrendered. They would insist that the plane lands on an airfield they control where they would then either seize or destroy the plane. So the plane is lost anyway.
    – Philipp
    Mar 9, 2022 at 14:07
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    In most cases ejecting or even bailing out is a last resort option, ejecting and landing in both cases can be somewhat traumatic to the human body. Landing in a safe manner would be the preferred option... Mar 9, 2022 at 15:15
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    @kloddant I don't think pilots are in the habit of ejecting flyable planes for no reason. I don't know about you, but if I was fighter pilot I certainly wouldn't want someone to be able to remotely take control of the aircraft. Also, I don't think it's that simple just to make it fly home. That's not functionality that just toss in.
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 9, 2022 at 22:20
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    @kloddant The plane might not even be designed to stay flying after losing the canopy, the relatively significant change of weight, and today's very common damage from the ejection seat rockets. No reason to spend time and money for a weight penalty just for a very niche scenario, if you distrust your pilot or it's possible to finish the mission without a pilot, just send a drone in the first place.
    – Martheen
    Mar 9, 2022 at 22:30
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    @Philipp you’re presuming the enemy wants to prevent the side surrendered to from having the plane. Defectors may be indifferent or even want their captures to have the plane. How about the pilot radioing in their intention? Wouldn’t that allow for a safe landing and surrender?
    – stevec
    Mar 9, 2022 at 22:33
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White flag is well-known but not an obligatory symbol of surrender:

A white flag or handkerchief is often taken or intended as a signal of a desire to surrender, but in international law, it simply represents a desire for a parley that may or may not result in a formal surrender. Normally, a surrender will involve the handing over of weapons; the commanding officer of a surrendering force symbolically offers his sword to the victorious commander. Individual combatants can indicate a surrender by discarding weapons and raising their hands empty and open above their heads; a surrendering tank commander should point the tank's turret away from opposing combatants. Flags and ensigns are hauled down or furled, and ships' colors are struck.

(Emphasis is mine)

In other words, one has to demonstrate that they are harmless. In case of a fighter plane this may mean flying low, at slow speed, opening landing gear and having discarded visible ammunition, taking off the helmet. Bailing out, suggested in the other answer, is a possible option, but not always available - either due to the risks involved (due to weather, complex ground or water below) or when one wants to use a plane to bargain for better surrender conditions (e.g., in case of pilot defectors).

Note also that there are visual signals (hand gestures etc.) that pilots use to communicate with each other when radio fails - as, e.g., when ordering a forced landing or signaling.

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    Good answer, that covers both surrender and defection. Mar 9, 2022 at 17:06
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    "either due to the risks involved (due to weather, complex ground or water below) or when one wants to use a plane to bargain for better surrender conditions" Or if it's a transport plane, and the passengers don't have parachutes (There's also the related issue of a civilian passenger jet being mistaken for a military craft.) Mar 10, 2022 at 7:26
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In addition to the provisions in the Geneva convention mentioned in Philipp's answer, some nations/militaries have adopted codes of practice relating to the surrender of aircraft. There is, however, no internationally accepted and recognised method of surrendering apart from ejecting oneself from the aircraft.

For example, Australia's Law of Armed Combat Manual published in 2006 states:

8.40 The LOAC forbids the killing or wounding of an enemy who, in good faith, surrenders or is otherwise hors de combat (out of combat). Surrenders in air combat are rarely offered. Nevertheless, actions or signals that suggest surrender should be respected. The surrendered aircraft should then be escorted to a suitable landing place.

8.41 Although relatively rare, surrenders by defecting enemy aircrew of military aircraft do offer valuable intelligence and psychological opportunities, and should be encouraged.

8.42 Disabled enemy aircraft in air combat are frequently pursued to destruction because of the difficulty of verifying their true status and inability to enforce surrender. Although disabled, the aircraft may or may not have lost its combat capability. Moreover, it may still represent a valuable military asset. If an aircraft in distress is clearly hors de combat from the information known to the attacking force at the time, then its destruction offers no military advantage, and the attack should be broken off to permit possible evacuation by crew or passengers. If the aircraft is a support or civil aircraft it is particularly important that this rule be observed.

The manual doesn't go into detail about which actions or signals may suggest surrender, but these presumably include lowering landing gear, slowing their speed, flashing their lights etc. However, some nations regard attacks on aircraft to be permissible even in these circumstances - for example the United Kingdom's LOAC Manual has this to say on the topic of surrender by enemy aircraft:

12.64 Although it is forbidden to ‘kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion’, in air-to-air combat, surrender is usually impracticable and occurs very infrequently.

12.64.1 In the special circumstances of air-to-air combat the continuation of an attack after an indication by the opponent of a wish to surrender is not inconsistent with the rule in paragraph 12.64, as the enemy pilot who remains in his aircraft cannot be said to have ‘laid down his arms’ or to have ‘no longer a means of defence’. However, if the surrender is offered in good faith and in circumstances that do not prevent enforcement, for example, when the engagement has not taken place over enemy territory, it must be respected and accepted. Surrenders of enemy aircraft and crews should not be discouraged because not only is a psychological advantage gained, but an enemy aircraft and defecting aircrew can provide intelligence which, if promptly and properly evaluated, may be of inestimable benefit to operations planning.

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  • In my reading, the Australian and UK rules say the same thing: It's difficult to tell if an aircraft is "out of combat" or not, but if it's clearly out of combat and you can enforce the surrender, let them surrender. 8.42 makes it clear that "out of combat" is related to combat capability and intent. You certainly wouldn't accept the "surrender" of a guy who's flying straight at your capitol with a plane full of bombs unless and until he's no longer a threat.
    – MichaelS
    Mar 10, 2022 at 0:28
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This may not directly answer precisely how a pilot would physically wave the white flag, but it is interesting to note the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine directly offering (pretty huge) payments for surrender by Russian pilots particularly with working equipment.

I believe this original post is in Ukrainian and Russian (although I'd appreciate any correction).

See below for an English translation (from Google translate).

enter image description here

UKR / RUSSIA

RUSSIAN PILOT, SURRENDER TO THE UKRAINIAN MILITARY!

the only way to save your life and honor!

🔷 According to the decision of the General Director Yuri Gusev, the State Concern "Ukroboronprom" is ready to pay bonuses for stolen combat aircraft of the occupiers! 💸

✈️ $ 1,000,000 for a stolen or trophy combat-ready aircraft.

🚁500,000 US dollars - for a captured military helicopter in working order.

RUSSIAN PILOT, SEEMS TO BE A UKRAINIAN MILITARY! the only way to save your life and honor!

💸Attention! According to the decision of the General Director Yuri Gusev, Ukroboronprom is ready to pay bonuses for the stolen combat aircraft of the occupiers!

✈️ $ 1,000,000 for a hijacked or trophy aircraft in working order.

🚁500,000 US dollars for a captured helicopter in working order. To the pilots of the Russian Federation, ready to participate in the program, we guarantee the issuance of citizenship of a free country!

After reading this, I am still unsure (and curious) as to how the precise mechanics of the surrender would work - would the pilot radio in? A phone number is provided, so perhaps via phone call (not sure if that's possible from a fighter jet / bomber?

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    Calling directly from the aircraft is a bad idea, either it's using a cell phone which requires flying low and slow (guaranteed to render the aircraft into non-working order), a bulky satphone which would attract attention, or the military network (if it even has that) that either block the number or redirect it. Ideally, the pilot would arrange the escape of their family first to avoid reprisal, which would likely involve foreign operatives. The phone number might be a first step for that.
    – Martheen
    Mar 13, 2022 at 17:15

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