Russia Downs U.S. Drone Worth $56 Million over Black Sea
The Department of Defense released footage Thursday morning showing Russian jets conducting an “unsafe and unprofessional intercept” of a U.S. drone operating in international waters over the Black Sea. Two Russian fighters harassed a U.S. drone into a watery crash landing on Tuesday, sending $56 million (in 2011 dollars) worth of equipment quite literally to the sea floor.
The footage shows the Russian Su-27 jets flying dangerously close to an MQ-9 Reaper drone and dumping fuel on it before one of the jets collided with drone, damaging its propeller. This is the first known incident where Russian aircraft have dumped fuel on an American aircraft during an intercept.
“At approximately 7:03 AM (CET), one of the Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing U.S. forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters,” said U.S. European Command. “Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner. This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.”
U.S. Air Force General James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said the drone “was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9. … In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
Several unnamed U.S. military officials told NBC News that U.S. intelligence shows senior Kremlin officials approved the intercept. One of the officials said it was “Russian leadership’s intention to be aggressive in the intercept.”
However, one of the officials believed the collision was unintentional, pilot error. Increasing anecdotal accounts posted online indicate that Russia is throwing poorly trained conscripts into combat.
Russia denied that its jet collided with the American drone. Then on Wednesday morning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated a Russian declaration that certain parts of the Black Sea were off-limits to aerial traffic for the duration of the conflict. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles out to sea, but the Russian-declared “no-fly” zone extends further, encompassing some international waters.
In a Wednesday phone call, U.S. Secretary of Defense told Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu that the U.S. would continue to fly and operate wherever international law allows. Shoygu responded that U.S. drone flights near Crimea were “provocative,” and that Russia would respond “in kind to all provocations.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a press conference Tuesday that the U.S. is pursuing “high-level engagement” to diplomatically register its disapproval. The U.S. summoned Russia’s envoy to Washington Anatoly Antonov, and U.S. ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy also “conveyed a strong message,” said Price. That the drone was forced to go down in international waters was “a brazen violation of international law,” Price said.
Antonov later insisted in a public statement that the drone “was moving deliberately and provocatively towards the Russian territory” — by which he meant the Crimean peninsula, a Ukrainian province Russia seized in 2014 — and “violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime.” Antonov demanded that the U.S. “refrain from further speculations in the media landscape and stop making sorties near the Russian borders.”
The U.S. military has made no plans to recover the drone’s wreckage, but it did wipe the drone’s software before its crash landing. The U.S. currently has no warships in the Black Sea. Turkey, a NATO member that often contradicts U.S. foreign policy aims and controls the sea’s only outlet, has denied entry since early 2022 to all warships that do not have a home port on the Black Sea. Russian warships have reached the crash site and are actively looking for debris.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said Wednesday that “any recovery operation, from a technical standpoint, would be very difficult.” He said the drone likely broke up “on the impact” and the debris “probably sank to some significant depths,” about four to 5,000 feet of water, nearly one mile deep. In 2021, the Navy recovered a helicopter submerged 19,705 feet below the surface of the Philippine Sea, breaking its previous “depth record for recovery of a sunken aircraft.”
“That downed MQ-9 drone was gathering intelligence on the locations and movements of Russian troops, intelligence that would be passed along to Ukrainians for targeting those forces,” explained Jim Geraghty in National Review. “We may not like Russian fighter jets downing our surveillance drones over international waters, but we should not be surprised that they are doing so. This is a natural and perhaps inevitable consequence of being in a proxy war with Russia.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.