(CNSNews.com) – Russia is disputing the Pentagon’s account of how a large U.S. military drone was downed over the Black Sea on Tuesday, denying the U.S. assertion that a Russian fighter jet being flown in a “reckless and unprofessional” manner clipped the unmanned aerial vehicle.
U.S. Europe Command said the MQ-9 drone, flying over international waters, was intercepted by two Russian Su-27 fighters, whose pilots “dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner.”
One of the Russian jets then struck the propeller of the drone, compelling U.S. forces controlling the UAV to pilot it down and into the sea, it said.
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” EUCOM said.
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe.
Russia’s defense ministry disputed the account, saying that “as a result of sharp maneuvers,” the drone had gone into “uncontrolled flight, lost altitude, and collided with the water surface.”
“The Russian fighters did not use weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV, and returned safely to their home base,” it said in a statement. It did not identify the base, although Russia operates several air bases in Crimea, as well as those in the Krasnodar and Rostov regions of southern Russia.
Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder said the Russian fighter involved in the collision had likely also sustained damage, and “did land” – although he did not say where it landed.
Russia’s defense ministry says the incident occurred near Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 in a move not recognized by most of the international community.
It also says the U.S. drone had “violated the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation,” the Kremlin’s term for its invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Asked whether the MQ-9 had been flying near Crimea, Ryder replied, “it was well clear of any territory in Ukraine,” and added that it was “in international airspace, over international water.”
“Intercepts of aircraft are not uncommon in and of themselves,” he said. “The vast majority of those intercepts are what we would consider safe and professional. Just wanting to see what’s there, right?”
In this case, however, the Russians “collided with the aircraft, damaging the propeller and essentially putting it in a situation where it was unflyable, uncontrollable,” he said. “So we brought it down.”
Ryder said the drone was being used in an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) role. He declined to say whether it was armed – although he confirmed that it does have the ability to be armed. (The MQ-9 “Reaper” has featured in numerous missile strikes against terrorist targets, reportedly including the one in Baghdad that killed IRGC Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.)
The MQ-9 is not a small craft; though shorter than the Su-27 it has a wingspan almost twice as long as the Russian fighter. The propeller reportedly struck by the Russian plane is located at the rear.
Ryder said he had no update on U.S. efforts to recover the drone, although to his knowledge it was not in Russian hands.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said if the Russians were trying to send a message of wanting to dissuade the U.S. military from operating in international airspace over the Black Sea, “that is not going to happen.”
“We’re going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace over international waters,” he said. “The Black Sea belongs to no one nation.”
The pro-Kremlin RT news service suggested U.S. Air Force ISR missions in the area are designed to benefit the Ukrainian military.
“The U.S. has admitted to providing Ukraine with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information in the conflict against Russia, while insisting it is not a party to the hostilities,” it said. “U.S. and NATO spy aircraft routinely fly over the Black Sea and approach Crimea, sometimes just before Ukrainian forces launch attacks on the Russian [sic] peninsula.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy had conveyed a “strong message” to the Russian foreign ministry about the incident, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov was summoned to the department to hear the same message.