An MQ-9 Reaper flies a training mission over the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 15, 2019.

An MQ-9 Reaper flies a training mission over the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 15, 2019. U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado

Russian Strike on US Drone Reflects a 'More Aggressive' Intercept Pattern, Milley Says

The MQ-9 UAV sank so deep into the Black Sea that it’s difficult to recover, the Joint Chiefs chairman added.

The United States sees a Russian jet’s collision with an MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday as part of a series of unusually aggressive responses to U.S. and allied patrols, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a press briefing Wednesday. 

“There is a pattern of behavior recently where there are a little bit more aggressive actions being conducted by the Russians,” Milley said, noting incidents involving Britain and other allied nations. “We haven't completed our analysis as to why that's happening." 

Russia in June 2021 claimed to have fired warning shots near a British warship in the Black Sea, and the next day conducted what the Netherlands called “mock attacks” on a Dutch warship, also in the Black Sea. On Tuesday, Russian Su-27 jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9 drone and then one of the planes 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. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a call with Russian Defense Minister Shoygu today regarding the drone incident, and Milley said he would also bring up the incident with his counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, on a scheduled call. 

“There is a pattern of behavior going on here, and we have to figure out exactly what the way ahead is,” Milley said. But while the Department of Defense has evidence of Russia’s aggressive behavior, it is still trying to establish if the Russian jet striking the drone was intentional, he said. 

Russia regularly shadows U.S. planes, often at close range, but incidents like the downing of the drone are “unique,” said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council. 

Dara Massicot,  a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, also noted that dumping fuel was unusual. 

Russia will attempt to recover the drone, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev said on Russian television Tuesday. “I don’t know if we can get it or not, but it must be done.” 

Milley said the drone had sunk in 4,000 to 5,000 feet waters, a depth that would make recovery difficult. The crash also likely broke up the drone into pieces, so there is “probably not a lot to recover,” he said. The U.S. has taken measures to prevent the loss of any sensitive intelligence, he added. 

Ukrainian Air Force Spokesman Yuriy Ignat said the incident occurred in international airspace south-east of Ukraine’s Snake Island. Any Russian vessels attempting to recover the drone may face opposition from Ukraine, which has regularly sunk Russian vessels in the Black Sea since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.