KYIV: A Russian fighter jet struck the propeller of a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday in a "brazen violation of international law," causing American forces to bring down the unmanned aerial vehicle, the U.S. said.
But Russia insisted its warplanes didn't hit the MQ-9 Reaper drone. Instead, it said the drone manoeuvred sharply and crashed into the water following an encounter with Russian fighter jets that had been scrambled to intercept it near Crimea.
The incident, which added to Russia-U.S. tensions over Moscow's war in Ukraine, appeared to be the first time since the height of the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft was brought down after an encounter with a Russian warplane.
U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to White House national security spokesman John Kirby. He added that U.S. State Department officials would be speaking directly with their Russian counterparts and "expressing our concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional intercept."
State Department spokesman Ned Price called it a "brazen violation of international law." He said the U.S. summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge a protest and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, has made similar representations in Moscow.
The U.S. European Command said two Russian Su-27 fighter jets intercepted the drone while it was operating within international airspace. It said one of the Russian fighters struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing U.S. forces to bring it down in international waters.
Prior to that, the Su-27s dumped fuel on the MQ-9 and flew in front of it several times in "a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner," the U.S. European Command said in a statement from Stuttgart, Germany. "This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional," it added.
U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said the MQ-9 aircraft was "conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9." He added that "in fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash."
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the incident occurred at 7:03 a.m. Central European time (0603 GMT; 2:03 a.m. EST) over international waters, and well clear of Ukraine, after the Russian jets had flown in the vicinity of the drone for 30 to 40 minutes. There did not appear to be any communications between the aircraft before the collision, Ryder added.
The MQ-9 includes a ground control station and satellite equipment and has a 66-foot (20-meter) wingspan. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Ryder would not say whether it was armed. The U.S. had not recovered the crashed drone, U.S. Air Forces-Europe said in a statement, and neither had Russia, Ryder said.
He said it appeared the Russian aircraft also was damaged in the collision, but the U.S. has confirmed that it did land, although Ryder would not say where.
Russia's Defense Ministry said the U.S. drone was flying over the Black Sea near Crimea and intruded in an area that was declared off-limits by Russia as part of what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine, causing the military to scramble fighters to intercept it.
"As a result of a sharp manoeuvre, the MQ-9 drone went into unguided flight with a loss of altitude and crashed into the water," it said. "The Russian fighters didn't use their weapons, didn't come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle, and they safely returned to their base."
The Russian ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, described the U.S. drone flight as a "provocation" and argued that there was no reason for U.S. military aircraft and warships to be near Russia's borders. Speaking after meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Karen Donfried, Antonov insisted that the Russian warplanes didn't hit the American drone or fire their weapons. He added that Moscow wants "pragmatic" ties with Washington, adding that "we don't want any confrontation between the U.S. and Russia."
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights close to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 and illegally annexed. The Kremlin has charged that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the U.S. and its allies have effectively become engaged in the conflict.
Kirby emphasized that the incident wouldn't deter the U.S. from continuing its missions in the area. "If the message is that they want to deter or dissuade us from flying, and operating in international airspace, over the Black Sea, then that message will fail," Kirby said. "We're going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace over international waters. The Black Sea belongs to no one nation."
The U.S. European Command said the incident followed a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea. "These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation," it warned.
Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said this type of collision is his greatest concern, both in that part of Europe as well as in the Pacific. "Probably my biggest worry both there and in the Pacific is an aggressive Russia or China pilot or vessel captain, or something gets too close, doesn't realize where they are, and causes a collision," Berger said, in response to a question at a National Press Club event Tuesday. (AIR NEWS)