Russian Jet Hits US Drone Over the Black Sea
The MQ-9 crashed after an Su-27 dumped fuel on it and then struck its propellor, U.S. officials said.
Updated: 4:50 p.m. on March 14.
A Russian military jet struck a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 drone Tuesday, causing it to crash into the Black Sea, U.S. officials said, in what appeared to be the first time a Russian aircraft has brought down a U.S. aircraft since the Cold War.
The Russian Su-27 jet hit the drone’s propeller, damaging it and forcing the U.S. to bring the unmanned aircraft down into international waters, U.S. officials said.
The crash resulted in the “complete loss” of the MQ-9 Reaper drone, Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a press release.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Russians do not have the drone, but he would not say whether the U.S. will attempt to recover it.
Before it struck the drone, the Su-27 and another flying with it dumped fuel onto the MQ-9 and flew in front of it. Ryder said these actions were unsafe, unprofessional, and “demonstrated a lack of competence.”
The drone was flying in international airspace over the Black Sea, Ryder said. Russia maintains a large military presence in the Black Sea region, operating largely from bases in the occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement on Telegram in which it claimed the drone was flying with “transponders turned off, violating the boundaries of the area of the temporary regime for the use of airspace established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation”—i.e., Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The statement claimed that no Russian jet hit the drone, and instead that it crashed because of “sharp maneuvering.”
Ryder said in a press briefing at the Pentagon that there were no radio calls or communication traffic from the Russians before or after the drone crashed. He estimated that the two Su-27s had been flying near the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before one “essentially ran into” the MQ-9. That jet did sustain some damage but was able to land, Ryder said.
The U.S. routinely flies intelligence missions in the region. On March 8, a RQ-4B Global Hawk drone was reported flying over the Black Sea between Crimea and Turkey.
The incident follows multiple instances of the U.S. accusing Russia of unsafe intercepts of its planes above the Baltic and Black Seas.
The downing of the aircraft, however, was “unique,” said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.
Incidents like this deeply concern the Marine Corps commandant.
“This is my—probably my biggest worry, both there and the Pacific, is that an aggressive Russia or China pilot or vessel captain or something, gets too close, doesn't realize where they are, causes a collision, and it's 2 in the morning and we're trying to unpack this as fast as we can. I'm really worried about that,” Gen. David Berger said Tuesday at the National Press Club. “In other words, either intentionally or unintentionally, things bumping into each other causing a collision, and then two great nations, powerful nations, trying to sort it out at 2 in the morning“
The incident also underscores the need for better military-to-military communications.
“Even more challenging because right now, on our side, on the let's say the [People’s Republic of China]—normally we would have communications with the [People’s Liberation Army Navy], their military. It doesn't exist right now. They won't communicate with us,” Berger said. “So, the normal sort of many channels that you have to kind of quickly defuse something…they're suspended right now. So I worry that something will happen at 2 in the morning and we can't talk to our counterpart to say, ‘What the heck was that about?’”
The crash should serve as a “wake-up call to isolationists,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Wicker’s comments come one day after Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and potential GOP presidential candidate, said the United States should not support Ukraine’s fight against Russia, calling it a “territorial dispute.”
First purchased by the Air Force in the 2000s, the MQ-9 Reaper—the service’s name for the General Atomics Predator B—can fly for up to 24 hours. Some MQ-9s have been upgraded to fly even longer, according to Forecast International.
Caitlin M. Kenney and Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.