Well, after the “Great Balloon Turkey Shot” of last month it seems the Russians have decided to get in on the action. At around 8AM local time on 14 March, a United States Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone had to crash land in the Black Sea after being bodily struck on the propellor by a Russian Air Force Su-27 fighter. The MQ-9 was destroyed by the incident and the Sukhoi reportedly made it safely back to Crimea.
The Reaper was apparently operating in international airspace when it was intercepted by the Sukhoi’s. The Su-27s then proceeded to dump fuel into the drone several times, before one of them hit the aircraft’s prop, causing its subsequent crash.
In a statement on the incident U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said that:
“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. In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.
“U.S. and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace, and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely.”
The Russians states that the MQ-9 was flying near the Crimean peninsula and “…violating the boundaries of the area of the temporary regime for the use of airspace established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation, communicated to all users of international airspace and published in accordance with international standards…As a result of sharp maneuvering…the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle went into an uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface.
“The Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to the home airfield.”
So, the classic “he said, she says”.
Since the incident there has been a lot of ink spilt about the whether it was deliberate or not, and no doubt a lot more shall be. So, I might as well weigh in with my two cents.
Obviously, fighter jocks getting up close and personal during an interception is hardly a new thing. We have the famous case of the Su-27s zipping in front of the nose of a B-52 back in 2020. And then there was the tragic incident when a Chinese Navy J-8 hit an American EP-3 in 2001, resulting in the death of the fighter pilot and creating a major international incident.
But in this case there can be little doubt that the Russian aircraft was deliberately trying to down the drone, whichever sides story is correct.
Obviously, no one in their right mind tries to bring down an aircraft by hitting their propellor with their own aircraft – that is the definition of “how to get unexpected outcomes.” But the actions of the Sukhoi pilots, whether by dumping fuel onto the aircraft, as in the USAF version, or by using hard maneuvers, as according to the Russians, were intended to down the MQ-9. Both actions seek to choke the airflow into the drones engine, a way to down the MQ-9 without resorting to weapons.
I mean, might seem like a silly distinction, but let’s be honest, if they shot it down outright, there would be a lot more at stake.
The Reaper was likely, along with the host of other aircraft constantly flying in the area, engaged on intelligence gathering on Russian forces engaged in the war in Ukraine. In fact, the incident probably best demonstrates the big pro and con of using unmanned aircraft like the Reaper for these sorts of roles.
Had a manned intelligence aircraft been used, the interceptors would have been more cautious about their response and how they acted around the aircraft. But an unmanned aircraft is far more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, as happened here.
Likewise, using a UAV might make the operator push the boundaries of what is acceptable in the targets eyes because there are no lives at stake on the operators part.
Regardless, I suspect the whole thing will blow over pretty quickly, as no lives were lost, and the constant dance of allied intel assets over the Black Sea was not interrupted by the event.
ADDENDUM: The USAF released their footage of the encounter the following day.
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