WASHINGTON — A Russian warplane struck a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, hitting the drone’s propeller and causing its American operators to bring it down in international waters, according to the Pentagon, in the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war in Ukraine started last February.
The downing of the MQ-9 Reaper, a workhorse of the American military’s airborne reconnaissance fleet, immediately escalated tensions between the White House and the Kremlin as U.S. officials accused the Russian forces involved in the incident of behaving dangerously.
American military officials said the unarmed Reaper drone was flying a typical reconnaissance mission when it was intercepted by two Russian Su-27 fighter jets about 75 miles southwest of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has used as a base for launching devastating strikes.
“Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” the military’s European Command said in a statement. “This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.”
John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said that there had been similar “intercepts” by Russian aircraft in recent weeks — nearly all conducted without incident, according to military officials — but that this episode was “noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was.”
President Biden was briefed on the episode, he added.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spiked tensions between Moscow and Washington, and turned the Black Sea into an effective battle zone. Russia has blockaded Ukrainian vessels within their own ports, though Ukraine has been able to export its grain across the sea under a deal signed last July between the two warring countries.
At the same time, Ukraine has attacked Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea as well as in port. In April, a Ukrainian missile sank the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, a strike that dented Moscow’s aura of naval invincibility.
The war has also galvanized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not least by strengthening ties between Washington and members that border Russia, including Poland and the Baltic States. NATO countries have poured billions of dollars of military aid into supporting Ukraine, but the alliance has tried to avoid directly stoking confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-armed state.
Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said the Russian ambassador in Washington had been summoned to receive a formal U.S. objection over the drone’s downing, which he called an “unsafe, unprofessional intercept” and a “brazen violation of international law.”
In a phone briefing with reporters, he said the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Lynne M. Tracy, had also “conveyed a strong message to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
The State of the War
The Russian Ministry of Defense denied that its warplanes were to blame and offered an alternative account of the confrontation. It said in a statement that after the Russian Air Force scrambled fighter jets to identify the drone, the U.S. aircraft maneuvered sharply, lost altitude and hit the water.
The drone had been flying near the Crimean Peninsula and headed toward the Russian border with its identifying transponder off, contrary to the instructions Russia has issued for the airspace over its military operations in Ukraine, the statement said.
But one U.S. official said that the downing of the drone was not any sort of “concerted chess move” by Russia. And multiple American officials said they had seen no information that indicated it was the opening salvo of a broader strategy to harass U.S. or NATO reconnaissance planes.
The attack on the drone was not necessarily an accident. The dropping of fuel in front of the Reaper, for example, was clearly deliberate. But U.S. officials said they did not believe that the Russians intended to clip the propeller of the drone with their plane, a risky move that could have easily brought down not just the drone but the Su-27 as well.
While Russia in the past has deliberately harassed American reconnaissance planes and naval ships, there have also been incidents in which Russian pilots independently executed dangerous maneuvers that have led to démarches from diplomats.
A senior U.S. military official said the MQ-9 took off from its base in Romania on Tuesday morning for a regularly scheduled reconnaissance mission, which usually lasts about nine to 10 hours. While Reapers can carry Hellfire missiles, this aircraft was unarmed, the official said.
Flying at about 25,000 feet, the Reaper’s sophisticated cameras and other sensors could peer into Russian-controlled Crimea while flying in international air space, a typical mission that MQ-9s have been conducting well before the war in Ukraine started, the official said.
But the surveillance mission on Tuesday quickly took a dangerous turn. Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said that the Russian Su-27 aircraft were flying near the American Reaper for about 30 to 40 minutes.
The much faster Russian warplanes repeatedly zoomed around the propeller-driven Reaper, dumping fuel on it, apparently in an effort to sully the drone’s cameras or damage its other sensors, the senior military official said.
The incident stunned U.S. military officials watching it via a video feed from the drone to an operations center at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the military official said. General Ryder said the Defense Department was going through the steps required to declassify the images.
General Ryder declined to discuss any efforts to recover the MQ-9, which went down in waters dominated by the Russian Navy.
David A. Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general and the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said unless this particular MQ-9 had a unique sensor onboard, “there is no great loss if the Russians recover it.”
“MQ-9s have been lost over Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, and parts have certainly been exploited/shared,” he said in an email.
Senior U.S. officials have been worried for months that some sort of incident or miscommunication over the Black Sea could lead to a larger problem. Last October, Russia fired a missile near an unarmed British surveillance plane flying over the Black Sea.
Russian fighters frequently conduct “intercepts” — airborne check-ins of U.S. and other allied aircraft — over the Black Sea, as well as other areas where Western and Russian aircraft fly in adjacent air space, from the Baltic Sea to off the coast of Alaska.
Most of these engagements are handled professionally, U.S. officials said, but Russian fighters have flown dangerously close to American and other allied aircraft several times over the past decade in apparent acts of intimidation.
Some of the incidents, including a near collision with an American warplane, have occurred in eastern Syria, where Russian military forces support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drone is a staple of the United States’ military air fleet and is used both for surveillance and for attacks.
The drone can reach speeds of up to 275 miles per hour and fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet. It is designed for long missions, with some models capable of flying for up to 34 hours, according to its manufacturer, California-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
While the Reaper can drop bombs and launch missiles, its slow speed and lack of defensive weapons make it relatively easy to shoot down.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a newer, larger version of the MQ-1 Predator drone, which the U.S. Air Force used until 2018. The Reapers are faster, have better sensors and can carry more munitions, according to a statement from the Air Force, which has paid as much as $32 million for one of them.
Reapers are flown remotely by a team of pilots and sensor operators on the ground, often far from the drones themselves. A pilot controls the takeoff, flight path and landing, while sensor operators control cameras and surveillance equipment.
The United States has used the aircraft in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. While the use of the drones in attacks in which civilians were killed has generated criticism, their defenders have argued that their ability to hit targets with precision minimizes collateral damage.
Reporting was contributed by Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Neil MacFarquhar and Carly Olson from New York, Lara Jakes from Rome, and Julian E. Barnes, Edward Wong and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington.
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