“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,” said US Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa.
Before the collision, two Russian aircraft, including the one involved in the collision, harassed the drone, he said.
“Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” the statement added.
The collision occurred in international airspace, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. He added that the US was consistently flying over the Black Sea before the war in Ukraine broke out in February of last year. Kirby said the US is not required to “check in” with Russia before flying.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said its two fighter aircraft did not come into contact with the US drone. In a statement posted on its official Telegram channel, the ministry said the drone was flying with its transponders off near the Crimean Peninsula when it went into an “unguided flight” and then fell into the water.
The US is discussing salvage operations for the drone, two US Defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told NBC News. The officials added that no US vessels are currently in the Black Sea.
The incident was the first time the officials were aware of a Russian jet dropping fuel on a US aircraft during an interception.
One official said that the aircraft that collided with the drone was most likely damaged, but initial reports indicate it was able to land in Crimea. Russia annexed that peninsula on the Black Sea in 2014.
Two Sukhoi Su-27 fighters perform during celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the Russian air force base of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kant, about 20 km outside Bishkek on October 27, 2013. AFP PHOTO / VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO (Photo credit) should read VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images)
Vyacheslav Oseledko | Afp | GettyImages
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration was in the process of summoning Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the US, to discuss the “brazen violation of international law.”
“We have engaged at high levels with our allies and partners in the first instance, to brief them on this incident and to let them know what we know,” Price said on a conference call with reporters.
“We are engaging directly with the Russians again at senior levels to convey our strong objections to this unsafe unprofessional interception, which caused the downing of the unmanned US aircraft,” he added.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
The MQ-9 drone system is designed to gather intelligence and carry out reconnaissance missions and is manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
The remotely piloted system can carry a combination of Hellfire missiles, Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs. Pentagon press spokesman US Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder declined to say if the drone was armed.
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