A US MQ-9 Reaper drone has crashed into the Black Sea after its propellor was damaged in a collision with a Russian Su-27 fighter jet.
US Air Force General James B Hecker revealed that before the incident, the Su-27 dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in what he branded a “reckless” manoeuvre.
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” said General Hecker.
“This incident follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with US and allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea.
“These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”
The MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, which is also believed to have been damaged.
Pentagon Press Secretary, Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, said the US Air Force routinely flies aircraft throughout international airspace in coordination with the applicable host nation and international laws and will continue to do so.
Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, accused Washington of “provocation”.
“The American UAV deliberately and provocatively was moving towards Russian territory with transponders turned off,” he said.
“The unacceptable activity of the US military in the close proximity to our borders is a cause for concern.
“They are collecting intelligence, which is subsequently used by the Kyiv regime to strike at our armed forces and territory.”
The Black Sea is considered international water. However, only warships from Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Turkiye, Bulgaria, and Romania bordering the sea can remain for more than three weeks under the 1936 Montreux Convention.
John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said intercepts – where one aircraft makes contact with another – were not uncommon, and there had been other similar incidents over the Black Sea in recent weeks.
“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 is not going to happen,” he said.
“We are going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace over international waters. We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace.”
The MQ-9 Reaper, built by General Atomics, is remotely operated by a two-person team and primarily designed to gather intelligence, but also carries 16 Hellfire missiles to strike sensitive targets.
Australia will, though, acquire a fleet of up to seven MQ-4C Triton drones manufactured by Northrop Grumman.
The aircraft is on track for production completion in 2023 ahead of final delivery to Australia in mid-2024.
The Tritons are tipped to deliver over 24-hour endurance, collecting essential ISR data over land and sea to enable rapid, informed decision-making.