Russian fighter jets forced a US drone out of the sky over international waters in the Black Sea on Tuesday, according to US officials.
US Air Force Gen James B Hecker of the branch’s Europe command said a pair of Russian Sukhoi Su-27 aircraft performed a “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional” set of manoeuvres, dumping fuel and damaging the propeller of an MQ-9 drone, forcing the US to bring the craft down.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” he added.
European command warned that “these aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation”. The US European Command said in a statement that one of the Russian fighters “struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing US forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters”.
Prior to that, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 several times before the collision, the statement from Stuttgart, Germany, continued.
The UAV was flying “well clear of any territory over Ukraine” while performing an unspecified intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission, the US Department of Defence said on Tuesday.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the US drone was flying near its borders and intruded in the area that was declared off limits by Russia, causing the military to scramble fighters to intercept it. “As a result of sharp manoeuvre, the US drone went into uncontrollable flight with a loss of altitude,” and fell into the water, it said.
Aircraft from both countries have operated over the Black Sea, which has coastlines in Russia and Ukraine.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price called it a “brazen violation of international law” and said the US summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge a protest. The US ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy has made similar representations in Moscow.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the incident would not deter the US from continuing their 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,” he said.
“We’re going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace over international waters,” he said. “The Black Sea belongs to no one nation.”
Russia’s Defence Ministry added that its fighters did not come into contact with the drone. “The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV and returned safely to their home airfield,” it said.
Russian aircraft were in fact damaged in the encounter, US Brigadier General Patrick Ryder claimed during a press briefing. He added that the downed US drone has not been captured by Russia, but declined to provide further details about whether or how the UAV might be recovered.
Interactions with Russian aircraft are common during operations in the area, but Mr Kirby told reporters in Washington that this incident “is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was, indeed reckless that it was”.
Drones have become a key part of the war in Ukraine on both sides. The US has provided more than 700 small Switchblade drones to Ukraine as part of its various security assistance packages. The craft are not armed, but can be carried in backpacks and used to crash into targets, becoming a key weapon for Ukrainian forces, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Thus far, the US has declined to provide Ukraine with long-range, armed US drones like the Reaper or Grey Eagle, over fears Russia could access the technology on board if one was shot down, according to DefenseNews.
All told, the US has provided Ukraine with roughly $34bn in security aid since 2014, when Russia first invaded the country, according to the Congressional Research Service.