A US military MQ-9 surveillance drone has crashed into the Black Sea after being intercepted by Russian fighter jets, in the first such incident since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.
The Pentagon said that one of the Russian Su-27 jets struck the propeller of the drone, making it inoperable, while Russia’s defense ministry blamed “sharp maneuvering” of the unmanned drone for the crash and said that its jets did not come into contact with it.
NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Army General Christopher Cavoli, briefed NATO allies about the incident, which was roundly condemned by the White House and the Pentagon – which warned of the risk of escalation.
The US State Department said it was summoning Russia’s ambassador over the incident.
Two Russian Su-27 jets carried out what the US military described as a reckless intercept of the US spy drone before one of them collided with it at 7.03am local time.
Several times before the collision, the Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9 – possibly trying to blind or damage it — and flew in front of the unmanned drone in unsafe manoeuvres, the US military said.
“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,” US Air Force General James Hecker, who oversees the US air force in the region, said in a statement.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
Russia’s defence ministry said the US drone went into the water as a result of “sharp manoeuvring” by it.
“The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV, and returned safely to their home airfield,” the ministry said.
While the United States is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, it has routinely been flying surveillance aircraft in and around the area.
The US military said the incident followed a pattern of dangerous behaviour by Russian pilots operating near aircraft flown by the US and its allies, including over the Black Sea, which lies between Europe and Asia and is bordered by countries including Russia and Ukraine.
The White House said the drone’s downing was unique, however, and would be raised directly by the State Department with their Russian counterparts.
“We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year… and we’re going to continue to do that,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
“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,” Kirby added.
The United States will on Tuesday afternoon summon Russia’s ambassador to the US over the incident, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
The US ambassador to Moscow has conveyed a strong message to Russia’s foreign affairs ministry, Price told reporters.
The MQ-9 “Reaper” drone, which is built by General Atomics, has a wingspan of 20 metres and is about 11 metres long.
The drone weighs about 2220kg when it is empty.
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