What is known – and not – about the US drone and the plane crash in Russia?
WASHINGTON (AP) — When a Russian fighter jet collided with a large U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, it was a rare but serious incident that sparked a US diplomatic outcry and raised concerns about the possibility that Russia could recover sensitive technology.
US and Russian officials had conflicting accounts of the collision between the MQ-9 Reaper drone and the Russian Su-27 fighter jet – each blaming the other. But a Pentagon spokesman raised the possibility that the Department of Defense could eventually declassify and release video it has of the collision.
Defense officials said the drone has not been recovered. But the Pentagon declined to say if any attempt was made to collect debris or pieces of the Reaper.
Here’s what is known – and uncertain – about the crash.
WHAT THE US SAYS HAPPENED
The Pentagon and the US European command said two Russian Su-27 aircraft had dumped fuel on the MQ-9, which was conducting a routine surveillance mission over the Black Sea in international airspace. They said the Russian jets flew around and in front of the drone several times for 30 to 40 minutes, after which one of the Russian planes “hit the propeller of the MQ-9, forcing US forces to shoot down the MQ-9. in international waters.”
Air Force General James Hecker, commander of the US Air Force Europe and Africa, said the Russian jet’s actions “almost caused both planes to crash”. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the collision probably also damaged the Russian fighter jet, but the Su-27 was able to land. He wouldn’t say where it landed.
The Pentagon said the drone was clear of any Ukrainian territory, but did not provide details. A US defense official said it was operating west of Crimea over the Black Sea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide mission details.
It is not clear whether the collision was accidental or intentional, but both sides agree that the Russian plane was trying to intercept the drone.
WHAT RUSSIA SAYS HAPPENED
The Russian defense ministry said the US drone flew near the Russian border and entered an area declared off-limits by Russian authorities. It said the Russian military mixed up fighter jets to intercept the US drone. It claimed that “due to a sharp maneuver, the U.S. drone went into uncontrollable flight with loss of altitude and collided with the surface of the water.”
Russia has declared vast areas near Crimea prohibited from flights. Ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and long before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Moscow accused US reconnaissance planes flying too close to its borders while ignoring messages from Russia.
Countries routinely operate in international airspace and waters, and no country can claim borders on territory beyond its own border.
The ministry said the Russian planes were out to intercept the drone but did not use their weapons and “did not interact with it”.
WHAT IS AN MQ-9 REAPER?
The MQ-9 Reaper is a large unmanned air force aircraft that is remotely piloted by a team of two. It contains a ground station and satellite equipment and has a wingspan of 20 meters. The team consists of a rated pilot responsible for flying the aircraft and an enlisted aircrew member tasked with operating the sensors and guiding weapons.
Routinely used during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for surveillance and airstrikes, the Reaper can be armed or unarmed. It can carry up to eight laser-guided missiles, including Hellfire missiles and other advanced munitions, and can hover over targets for approximately 24 hours. It is about 36 feet long, 12 feet high, and weighs about 4,900 pounds (11 feet long, 4 feet high, and 2,200 kilograms). It can fly at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet (15 kilometers) and has a range of about 1,400 nautical miles (2,500 kilometers).
First commissioned in 2007, the Reaper replaced the Air Force’s smaller Predator drones. Each Reaper costs about $32 million.
The clash sparked a diplomatic outcry.
The US State Department summoned Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov on Tuesday to meet with Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for Europe.
“We are in direct talks with the Russians, again at higher levels, to convey our strong objections to this unsafe, unprofessional interception that caused the downing of the U.S. U.S. unmanned aircraft,” said Ned Price, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense. Foreign Affairs.
And White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said the US “will raise our concerns about this unsafe and unprofessional interception.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had not spoken to his Russian counterpart about the incident, Ryder said.
HAS IT HAPPENED BEFORE?
This is not the first time that Russian planes have flown so close to US planes in the Black Sea that the Pentagon has publicly condemned the incident as endangering the crew. In 2020, Russian jets crossed in front of a B-52 bomber flying over the Black Sea, flying up to 100 feet in front of the bomber’s nose, causing turbulence.
Russian fighter jets also have US warships buzzing during exercises in the Black Sea. In 2021, Russian warplanes buzzed the USS Donald Cook, a Navy destroyer that had taken part in a major exercise. Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, US warships were deployed more frequently in the Black Sea in response to the Russian attack on Crimea in 2014.
However, military interceptions – airborne or seaborne – are largely routine and have happened a number of times with Russian aircraft in the Pacific, particularly in the north. Just last month, US fighter jets intercepted two Russian TU-95 bombers in international airspace off the coast of Alaska and “escorted” them for 12 minutes, the Pentagon said.
And Russian planes have done similar missions, also buzzing US Navy ships in the Pacific. In most cases, the interceptions are considered safe and professional.
It’s not clear whether the Russian pilots were willing to move closer to the Reaper or dump fuel on it because they knew it was unmanned – and therefore there was no risk to an American pilot or crew. The intentional downing of a manned aircraft – in which crew members are injured or killed – can be considered an act of war.
AP Diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.