An American intelligence drone crashed after colliding with a Russian fighter over the Black Sea on Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force’s European headquarters said in a release.
The MQ-9 Reaper drone was flying a routine surveillance mission in international airspace when it crossed paths with two Su-27 fighters around 7 a.m. local time, according to U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
The Russian jets began antagonizing the unmanned aircraft, repeatedly dumping fuel on and buzzing in front of the much smaller Reaper, the Air Force said. One Su-27 drew close enough to hit the drone’s tail propeller, causing its remote operators to lose control of the plane.
The incident resulted in a “complete loss” of the MQ-9 and nearly caused the Su-27 to crash as well, USAFE Commander Gen. James Hecker said in the release. It’s the first time an unsafe interaction with Russian aircraft has downed a U.S. drone, according to John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council.
“U.S. and allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely,” he said.
American and European air forces routinely intercept Russian aircraft that encroach on NATO airspace and push the limits of risky maneuvers. MQ-9 drones — known for their “eye in the sky” role in counterterrorism operations — have been a key part of U.S. efforts to surveil Russia’s war in Ukraine for more than a year.
“These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” USAFE said.
President Joe Biden was briefed by the national security adviser about this incident earlier this morning, Kirby told reporters. The State Department intends to reach out to Russian officials to express their displeasure, he added.
“This MQ-9 was operating in international airspace over international waters and posed a threat to nobody,” Kirby said in a call with reporters. “It was an unsafe and unprofessional intercept. It is not the first time, certainly in recent weeks, that there’s been an intercept. It is the first time that an intercept resulted in the splashing of one of our drones.”
While Kirby downplayed intercepts of U.S. and other aircraft by Russian aircraft over the Black Sea as “not uncommon,” he called this one “unique” and “noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was.”
The U.S. has been consistently flying over the Black Sea’s international airspace and will continue to do so, Kirby said.
In 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance—Demonstrator drone, a version of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting then-U.S. President Donald Trump to consider a retaliatory strike. He later backtracked, citing potential civilian casualties. The two countries made contradictory claims, and U.S. military officials ultimately downplayed the incident.
The same year, the U.S. military alleged Libyan forces using Russian air defenses brought down a drone near Tripoli.
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.
p class=”default__BioWrapper-cy7r53-0 duEMsg a-body2″>Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.