A Russian Su-27 fighter jet has collided with an American military drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, the U.S. said. The collision made the drone “unflyable” and officials crashed it into the sea, the Pentagon said. The White House called the Russian plane’s intercept of the unmanned aircraft “reckless.”
“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” U.S. Air Force General James Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a statement.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” Hecker said.
Two Russian fighter jets were involved in the incident, U.S. European Command said. At approximately 2:03 a.m. EDT Tuesday, one of the Russian jets struck the drone’s propeller.
“Because of the damage, we were in a position to have to essentially crash it into the Black Sea,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. “… It essentially ran into the MQ-9.”
Before the collision, the jets dumped fuel on the drone and flew in front of it “in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” European Command said.
The Russian jet was likely damaged in the incident but it did land afterward, said Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman. He wouldn’t say where the jet landed.
Ryder, who wouldn’t say whether the drone was armed, referred to the unmanned aircraft as a MQ-9, but not a Reaper. The U.S. uses MQ-9 Reapers for both surveillance and strikes and has operated the drones in a variety of locations, including in the Middle East and Africa. Other countries, including Britain and France, also fly Reapers.
Reapers can be armed with Hellfire missiles as well as laser-guided bombs and can fly for more than 1,100 miles at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, according to the Air Force.
The drone in Tuesday’s incident was conducting an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission, Ryder said, adding that he didn’t have any details to provide at the time on a possible operation to recover the drone.
“To my knowledge at this point in time, the Russians have not recovered that aircraft,” Ryder said.
He also said officials were reviewing imagery from the incident to determine if any can be released.
Moscow, for its part, denied causing the drone to crash.
“As a result of sharp maneuvering … the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, adding that the two Russian jets had no contact with the U.S. aircraft and did not use their weapons.
The Defense Ministry also called the drone an “intruder” that was heading toward Russia’s border. Ryder told reporters the drone was operating in international airspace over international waters.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year has led to heightened fears of a direct confrontation between Moscow and the NATO alliance, which has been arming Kyiv to help it defend itself.
Reports of a missile strike in eastern Poland in November briefly caused alarm before Western military sources concluded that it was a Ukrainian air defense missile, not a Russian one.
The State Department said it had summoned Russia’s ambassador to protest Tuesday’s intercept.
“We are engaging directly with the Russians, again at senior levels, to convey our strong objections to this unsafe, unprofessional intercept, which caused the downing of the unmanned U.S. aircraft,” spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Russian intercepts in the Black Sea area are common, but this one “is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was, indeed reckless that it was,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists.
Kirby said President Biden had been briefed about the incident.
“We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that, nor do we do it,” he added.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Russia’s behavior “reckless and inept.”
“This pattern of Russian provocation must end,” Reed said on Twitter.
Sen. Roger Wicker, the committee’s top Republican, said the incident “makes clear that Vladimir Putin is an adversary.”
“This incident should serve as a wake-up call to isolationists in the United States that it is in our national interest to treat Putin as the threat he truly is,” Wicker said. “Putin wants nothing more than for incidents like these to push the United States away from our support of Ukraine and prevent us from rolling back his destructive policies.”
Several U.S. MQ-9s have been lost in recent years, including to hostile action.
One was shot down in 2019 over Yemen with a surface-to-air missile fired by Houthi rebels, who also unsuccessfully fired on another of the drones a few days later, U.S. Central Command said.