A Russian fighter jet collided into an American Reaper surveillance drone over the Black Sea in international airspace on Tuesday, according to the U.S. European Command.
In a press release, the U.S. Air Force said that at 2 a.m. Eastern (7 a.m. local time) a Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the propeller of the U.S.’s MQ-9 aircraft, which conducts intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It was accompanied by a second Su-27 that wasn’t involved in the collision but that U.S. officials said was also involved in “unsafe” conduct.
“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,” the U.S. release said.
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.”
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U.S. operators were forced to bring the drone down in international waters, “resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander, U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
Russia’s defence ministry denied the collision. It said the U.S. drone was flying over the Black Sea near Crimea and intruded into the area that Russia has claimed is off-limits as part of its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. That caused the military to scramble jets to intercept it, according to the ministry.
“As a result of sharp maneuver, the MQ-9 drone went into uncontrollable flight with a loss of altitude and crashed into water,” it said. “The Russian fighters didn’t use their weapons or impact the unmanned aerial vehicle, and they safely returned to their base.”
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The incident would be the first time since 1960 that a U.S. aircraft was downed after an encounter with a Russian warplane.
The U.S. says that the intercept is the latest in a pattern of “dangerous actions” by Russian pilots interacting with U.S. and Allied aircraft over international airspace. The U.S. warns that the behaviour is aggressive and “could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”
“U.S. and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely,” Hecker added.
The U.S. added that its air forces in Europe routinely fly over sovereign territory and in international airspace.
State Department spokesman Ned Price called the incident a “brazen violation of international law,” and said that the U.S. has summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge a protest.
Reuters reported that the ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, called the drone’s appearance over the Black Sea a “provocation” in remarks to Russia’s RIA state news agency following his meeting at the U.S. State Department.
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“We view this incident as a provocation,” Antonov was quoted as saying, adding talks with the U.S. were “constructive.”
U.S. President Joe Biden has been briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to White House National Security spokesman John Kirby.
In a press conference Tuesday, Brig.-Gen. Patrick Ryder, press secretary for the Department of Defense, said that while intercepts in international airspace are not unusual, with aircraft flying close to each other to see what’s there, the incident with the Russian fighter jets was “uncommon” and “unfortunate.” He said that the U.S. State Department is raising concerns over the incident directly with the Russian government.
According to Ryder, the U.S. drone was conducting a mission when the incident occurred, with the Russian jets flying close to the MQ-9 for around 30 to 40 minutes before the collision just after 7 a.m. local time, causing it to be “in a situation where it was unflyable.”
He said there was no communication between U.S. and Russia before the collision, and the aircraft was “well clear” of any Ukrainian territory. The U.S. has not recovered the aircraft yet, Ryder said, and he would not say whether it was armed or not.
“(The jet) essentially ran into the MQ-9,” he said. “The actions speak for themselves.”
— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press.
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