Washington says ‘reckless’ Russian manoeuvers forced US to bring down MQ-9 drone, but Moscow denies collision occurred.
The White House has condemned Russia for “unsafe” and “reckless” jet manoeuvers that the United States says led to the downing of a US drone in the Black Sea.
In a statement on Tuesday, the US military’s European command said a Russian Su-27 jet struck the propeller of the MQ-9 Reaper drone, requiring it to be brought down in international waters and resulting in the loss of the aircraft.
The Black Sea borders both Russia and Ukraine, who have been at war since Russia invaded its neighbour on February 24 of last year.
The US military said prior to the collision at 7:03am local time (06:03 GMT), two Su-27s “dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9” in what it described as a “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner”.
“Aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” the statement said.
Russia’s defence ministry has denied that the Russian fighter jet and the drone made contact, saying later on Tuesday that the drone went into uncontrolled flight and crashed into the water during “sharp maneuvering”.
“The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV and returned safely to their home airfield,” the ministry said.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the incident.
“It is not uncommon … for there to be intercepts by Russian aircraft of US aircraft over the Black Sea,” Kirby told reporters.
But this case “is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was, indeed [how] reckless that it was”, said Kirby, adding “we don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace”.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US would summon Russia’s ambassador to Washington following the incident.
He added that the US ambassador to Moscow has conveyed a strong message to Russia’s foreign affairs ministry.
Top NATO General Christopher Cavoli had also briefed NATO allies on the incident on Tuesday, an official told the Reuters news agency.
Moscow has repeatedly voiced concern about US intelligence flights close to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Tuesday’s incident occurred as Russian troops pushed forward in waves along the frontline in eastern Ukraine, where fierce fighting is raging in Bakhmut.
The US military said it “follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with US and Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea”.
The United States uses MQ-9 Reapers for both surveillance and strikes. It has operated the drones in a variety of locations, including in the Middle East and Africa. Other countries, including Britain and France, also fly the drones.
Several US MQ-9s have been lost in recent years, including one shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Yemen in 2019, and another reportedly lost in Libya in 2022. The units reportedly each cost about $32m.