Pentagon Unsure It Can Recover Drone Downed by Russia

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Pentagon officials are still figuring out whether there is anything recoverable from the debris of an unmanned U.S. surveillance drone brought down by a Russian fighter jet Tuesday over the Black Sea, as both nations trade public condemnations amid heightened tensions.

"It's probably about 4,000 to 5,000 feet below water," Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday. "Any recovery operation would be difficult at that depth by anyone. It's true we don't have the ships there, but we do have a lot of allies in the area."

But Milley voiced skepticism that pieces of the drone, which was apparently bumped by the Russian jet after being doused in fuel, would be retrieved.

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"[It] probably sank," he said. "If there's reason to believe we could recover something, we'll work up options."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had a call with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday regarding the incident, telling reporters while speaking alongside Milley that an open line of contact is critical for both nations to avoid misunderstandings. Yet Austin said the incident, which is the first known physical contact between American and Russian forces since Vladimir Putin's year-long attempt to conquer Ukraine began, will not deter the U.S. from any missions in international waters or airspace.

The Black Sea serves as a critical avenue for Russian warships to launch cruise missiles into Ukraine, though much of the waterway is considered international territory. The U.S., as part of its support for Ukraine, collects and shares intelligence on Russian positions and troop movements, including intel collected through flights over the Black Sea.

"It's important that great powers be models of transparency and communication, and the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows," Austin told reporters.

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's Security Council, said Tuesday that Moscow is also analyzing whether it can recover the drone debris itself. "I don't know if we can recover them or not, but we will certainly have to do that, and we will deal with it," Patrushev said, according to reporting from The Associated Press. "I certainly hope for success."

The MQ-9 drone crashed while flying in international airspace, according to U.S. officials, after being intercepted by two Russian Su-27 fighter jets. At least one of the jets dumped fuel onto the drone, and one made physical contact with the drone's propeller. It's unclear whether that was an intentional maneuver by the Russian pilots.

U.S. officials say the collision may have also caused damage to the Russian aircraft. "This unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash," Gen. James Hecker, head of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a statement Tuesday.

Milley on Wednesday said that Russians have been increasingly intercepting aircraft from the U.S. and other NATO allies such as the United Kingdom.

"There is a pattern of behavior recently with aggressive actions by the Russians; it wasn't just involving us," he said.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Russia Wants to Recover Debris of US Drone from Black Sea

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