WASHINGTON – A US military MQ-9 surveillance drone crashed into the Black Sea on Tuesday after being intercepted by Russian fighter jets, in the first such incident since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago.
The Pentagon said one of the Russian Su-27 jets struck the propeller of the drone, making it inoperable, while Russia’s Defence Ministry blamed “sharp manoeuvring” of the unmanned drone for the crash and said its jets did not make contact.
Although no lives were lost, it was a reminder of the risk of direct confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, which has been supported by its Western allies with intelligence and weapons since Moscow invaded it more than a year ago.
Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Army General Christopher Cavoli, briefed Nato allies about the incident, which was roundly condemned by the White House and the Pentagon – where officials warned of the risk of escalation.
The US State Department summoned Russia’s ambassador over the incident.
Two Russian Su-27 jets carried out what the US military described as a reckless intercept of the American spy drone. It said the Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9 – possibly trying to blind or damage it – and flew in front of it in unsafe manoeuvres.
After around 30 to 40 minutes, at about 7.05am (2.05pm Singapore time), one of the jets then collided with the drone, causing it to crash, the US military said.
“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” US Air Force General James Hecker, who oversees the US Air Force in the region, said in a statement.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
But Russia’s Defence Ministry denied the craft made contact. It said the US drone went into the water as a result of “sharp manoeuvring” and said the drone was flying with its transponder turned off.
“The Russian fighters did not use their on-board weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), and returned safely to their home airfield,” the ministry said.
The Black Sea lies between Europe and Asia, and Ukraine is among the countries bordering it. The Russian ministry said the drone had been detected over the sea near the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Ms Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow who researches hybrid and grey-zone threats at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank in Washington, said the incident was unprecedented in the Ukraine war so far.
“This is a very sensitive stage in this conflict because it really is the first direct contact that the public knows about between the West and Russia,” Ms Braw said.
Reaper surveillance drone
The MQ-9 Reaper drone, built by General Atomics, has a wingspan of 20m and is about 11m long. It weighs about 2,220kg when empty.
The Pentagon did not say whether the drone was armed, where exactly it was flying, or offer details on its mission other than to say it was carrying out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities.
Such an aircraft would most likely be engaged in collecting US intelligence related to the war in Ukraine – one of the biggest contributions by the West to Kyiv in its bid to repel invading Russian forces.
The Pentagon declined to say if it would attempt to recover the debris of the MQ-9, but noted that Russia had not done so.
“To my knowledge at this point in time, the Russians have not recovered that aircraft,” said Pentagon spokesman Patrick Ryder.
While the US is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, it has routinely flown surveillance aircraft in and around the area.
The US military said the incident followed a pattern of dangerous behaviour by Russian pilots operating near aircraft flown by the US and its allies.
The White House said the details of this incident were unique, however, and would be raised directly by the State Department with its Russian counterpart.
“We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year... and we’re going to continue to do that,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
“We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that nor do we do it,” Mr Kirby added.
The US summoned Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Mr Anatoly Antonov, over the incident. But Mr Antonov appeared to dismiss US concerns in remarks to Russia’s RIA state news agency.
“We view this incident as a provocation,” Mr Antonov was quoted saying. REUTERS