Russian Jet Bumps Air Force Drone over Black Sea, Causing Unmanned Aircraft to Crash

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An MQ-9 Reaper turns out of a parking ramp.
An MQ-9 Reaper turns out of a parking ramp at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Feb. 21, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Arielle Vasquez)

Two Russian fighter jets caused an Air Force MQ-9 drone to crash in international waters during their attempt to intercept the remotely operated aircraft over the Black Sea -- a move that may lead to "unintended escalation," according to officials. 

On Tuesday morning, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 drone was flying in international airspace over the Black Sea. Two Russian Su-27 jets "conducted an unsafe and unprofessional intercept," according to a press release from U.S European Command, causing the unmanned aircraft to crash.

"One of the Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing U.S. forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters," European Command said in a statement. "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."

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It was unclear Tuesday afternoon whether the U.S. would attempt to salvage the drone, which was flown into the Black Sea by operators because it was damaged. Russia had not recovered it, officials said, which could risk the transfer of U.S. technology to countries such as Iran. When asked about footage of the incident, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during a press briefing Tuesday that the military was undertaking a "declassification process."

"We assess it caused some damage to the Russian aircraft as well," said Ryder, who added that the Russian jet was able to land.

The cost of an MQ-9, according to an Air Force fact sheet, is upward of $56 million.

U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa regularly send unmanned aircraft over Europe as well as "sovereign territory and throughout international airspace" as allowed by host nations and international laws, the press release detailed.

"These aircraft have been flying over the Black Sea region for some time, to include before the current conflict started" in Ukraine, Ryder said. "It is an important and busy international waterway, so it is not an uncommon mission for us to be flying in international airspace."

Moscow has historically viewed the Black Sea as a key geopolitical element to its military and economic success and often sees any NATO or U.S. involvement in the area as a threat to those goals. 

Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based on the Crimean peninsula that was annexed from Ukraine in 2014, has built up its forces over the years in a show of strength in the region. Three NATO countries -- Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey -- have coastlines on the Black Sea.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had not been in contact with his Russian counterpart Tuesday afternoon, but the Pentagon said U.S. concerns were being conveyed to Moscow via the State Department.

European Command said in a press release that the "aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation." 

Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a press release that the incident resulted in a total loss of the MQ-9 aircraft and almost brought down the Russian jets.

"This unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash," Hecker said in the release. "U.S. and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace, and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and Safely."

The incident also sparked outrage from top lawmakers on Capitol Hill as tensions with Russia remain high over its invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine. 

"Reckless and inept -- there is no other way to describe Russia's behavior in this collision with a U.S. drone over international waters," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted. "This pattern of Russian provocation must end."

The crash of the MQ-9 caused by Russian jets comes as Brig. Gen. Edward Vaughan, the deputy director for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities at European Command, is in Azerbaijan -- a former Soviet republic that borders Russia -- meeting with government officials, according to a news release from the U.S. Embassy in the country.

European Command said in its press release that Tuesday's incident "follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten. 

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