Today's D Brief: Russian jet collides with US drone; USAF not buying hypersonics in 2024; America's Iraq invasion, revisited; And a bit more.

A Russian military jet collided with a United States military drone over the Black Sea at about 7 a.m. local time Tuesday. The collision occurred after two Russian Su-27 aircraft buzzed the MQ-9 drone and dumped fuel on it “in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” officials at the U.S. military’s European Command announced Tuesday. 

“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence,” and the “aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” the officials added. 

The collision damaged the drone’s propeller, making it virtually “unflyable, uncontrollable,” so the pilot crashed it into international waters, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday. U.S. officials believe the Russian jet was also damaged, but was able to land, Ryder added. 

“This hazardous episode is part of a pattern of aggressive, risky, and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace,” Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said Wednesday. “So make no mistake,” he added, “The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows; and it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner.”

For what it’s worth, the fuel dumping seems to be a first, Russia researcher Dara Massicot of RAND Corporation noted Tuesday in a Twitter thread unpacking her findings related to the topic and published last year. Still, she wrote, “While patterns suggest it might have been a close maneuver gone bad leading to a collision, a deliberate bump cannot be ruled out yet.” 

“This is a tense time, and these incidents do not help matters,” said Massicot. But it’s important to remember “these incidents have been ongoing at various levels for over a decade,” she said. 

NATO allies are meeting virtually today for the latest iteration of the Pentagon-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group. Defense Secretary Austin Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley are leading discussions, which will also include alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

NATO’s Nordic expansion still needs Türkiye’s support, and so White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan got on the phone with his Turkish counterpart Ibrahim Kalin about that and several other matters Tuesday. “Sullivan underscored the United States’ view that Sweden and Finland should become members of NATO as soon as possible,” the White House said in a readout afterward. They also discussed Türkiye’s post-earthquake recovery efforts, Russia’s Ukraine invasion, and “efforts to ensure a renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” brokered by the United Nations last summer.  

Microsoft just patched an Outlook email vulnerability Russian military hackers used from April through December, the software company announced Tuesday. It worked by the hackers sending “a specially crafted email which triggers automatically when it is retrieved and processed by the Outlook client,” Microsoft said, according to the computer security website Bleeping Computer. Ukrainian officials reportedly clued Microsoft in on the vulnerability, according to CNN

The U.S. could soon sell Romania 95 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles for about $104 million, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced Tuesday. The likely new sale adds to a previous Romanian order for 34 of the JLTVs, which raises the total quantity to 129 of the armored vehicles made by Oshkosh Corporation, based in Wisconsin. The sale, which lawmakers can object to but aren’t expected to, would help the U.S. “by improving the security of a NATO Ally that is a force for political stability and economic progress in Europe,” DSCA said. 

Related reading:

From Defense One

Air Force Won’t Buy Hypersonic Missiles in 2024, Official Says // Audrey Decker: The service will spend the next year continuing to develop and test two candidate weapons, a budget leader said.

Russian Jet Hits US Drone Over the Black Sea // Sam Skove: The MQ-9 crashed after an Su-27 dumped fuel on it and then struck its propellor, U.S. officials said.

Here's the Pentagon's New Plan to Woo and Retain Cyber Workers  // Kirsten Errick: The 2023-27 strategy aims to improve identification, recruitment, development, and retention of civilians in IT and related jobs.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to this newsletter, you can do that here. On this day in 2011, the Syrian civil war began. Read all about a new “Strategy to End the Systematic Theft of Humanitarian Aid in Syria,” published Wednesday by David Adesnik of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Happening tomorrow: Defense One’s State of the Marine Corps virtual event, part of the annual State of Defense series. Tune in at 11 a.m. to watch a keynote interview with Commandant Gen. David Berger, followed by an interview with Brig. Gen. Joseph Clearfield, deputy commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific. Register here if you haven’t already—it’s free. 

Chinese balloon fallout continues: A bipartisan pair of U.S. senators will soon introduce legislation to require tracking systems on high-altitude balloons, to help officials tell the difference between dirigibles that may cause a threat and those that are merely collecting weather data, Reuters reported Wednesday. Those two senators are Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Mark Kelly. Both are pilots, and Kelly is also a former NASA astronaut. The legislation, of course, is in response to the Chinese balloon incident last month. 

And lastly: It’s been 20 years since America’s calamitous invasion of Iraq, a mission initially sold to the public as an urgent need to find and remove Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction…until they weren’t found, and then it turned into an operation to spread democracy throughout the world. After two decades of soul searching among the U.S. national security policy community, are you prepared to revisit some of the top lessons from that decision nearly every lawmaker now agrees was a terrible mistake?
For your correspondents, the succinct story of America’s mistake in Iraq was assembled, edited, and already aired on U.S. television 16 years ago. It was back in 2007 that Bill Moyers of PBS anchored a nearly 90-minute presentation entitled, “Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us.” Your D Brief-er saw it for the first time as a public affairs student when he checked it out from the library at Fort Meade, Md. (along with the 2004 Iraq war documentary “Control Room”). To this day, Moyers’s “Buying the War” remains highly recommended viewing.
We now have a new podcast series from NPR’s “Embedded” team that looks into what they call “the worst Marine-on-Marine friendly fire incident in modern history—and why it was covered up” in Fallujah back in 2004. Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins veteran producer Graham Smith to tell the story of those Marines and their Iraqi counterparts in a new investigative series called “Taking Cover.” The first episode airs on March 23, which is the 20th anniversary of America’s “shock and awe” opening salvo in that regrettable conflict. Listen the trailer and read a bit more about that one, here.
In terms of #LongReads, we have Spencer Ackerman’s latest dispatch from the war on terror published last week in Rolling Stone and entitled, “The Iraq War Unleashed an Age of Grift. We’re Still Living in It.”
On Monday, the BBC publishedHow the search for Iraq's secret weapons fell apart,” which is more of a mid-size read. (Defense One’s Patrick Tucker offered this biting retort: “Um… it fell apart because they weren’t there.”) On Monday Foreign Affairs also published “The Counterinsurgent’s Curriculum: Why American Troops Should Study the Iraq War,” from retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor from Ohio State University.
And on Tuesday, Reuters updated us all to announce there are “No regrets from the Iraqi who threw his shoes at [then-President George W.] Bush.”
Still more reading: