Russian Aircraft Intercepts United States’ Unmanned Aircraft In International Airspace

March 14, 2023

This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.

The United States European Command announcing that two Russian fighter jets intercepted an unmanned U.S. aircraft in international airspace over the Black Sea on Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 14 (Thursday, March 16 updates below):

What Happened: The U.S. European Command said a U.S. unmanned drone (MQ-9) was “operating within international airspace over the Black Sea” when two Russian fighter jets intercepted the aircraft. The U.S. European Command said that the Russian aircraft “dumped fuel on and flew in front” of the U.S. aircraft before one of the Russian jets “struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing U.S. forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters.”

  • White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said related incidents are “not an uncommon occurrence,” however, this was the first such intercept to cause “the splashing of one of our drones.” Kirby explained, “This one … is noteworthy because of how unsafe and unprofessional it was …”
  • Why It Matters: The U.S. European Command explains, “These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.” U.S. Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander, U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said the intercept resulted in “a crash and complete loss of the” U.S. drone. He further noted, “In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.” Kirby noted on Tuesday that U.S. State Dept. officials would be contacting their Russian counterparts to express the U.S.’ concerns.
  • Russia’s Defense Ministry has denied the U.S.’ statements, saying the U.S. drone was flying near Crimea (which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014) and flew near the Russian Federation with its transponder off, causing the Russian military to scramble jets to intercept the aircraft. The Russian Defense Ministry said that the U.S. aircraft crashed into the water due to the “result of a sharp maneuver,” which caused the drone to go “into uncontrollable flight with a loss of altitude …”
  • As the incident reflects increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia amid the war in Ukraine, the fighting continues in Ukraine. On Tuesday, “a Russian missile struck an apartment building … in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, killing at least one person and wounding nine others …” (The Associated Press).


Statement from U.S. European Command

US says Russian warplane hits American over Black Sea (The Associated Press)

Russian Warplane Hits American Drone Over Black Sea, U.S. Says: Live Updates (The New York Times)

Watch: Pentagon briefs media following collision between Russian fighter jet and US drone (Guardian News, see 27 minutes 23 seconds)


What To Know: On Thursday, the U.S. European Command released a 42-second clip of what it said was two Russian fighter jets intercepting an unmanned U.S. drone over the Black Sea, which resulted in the drone being crashed into waters 4,000 – 5,000 feet deep. Along with the video, the U.S. European Command released a summary noting the time in the video where one of the props on the propellercan be seen damaged.

Why It Matters: It is not uncommon for Russia and NATO member countries to intercept each other’s warplanes, “but the drone incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to a direct conflict” (The Associated Press).

Big Picture: On Wednesday, the top U.S. and Russian military and defense officials spoke regarding the intercept; the calls marked the first time the leaders spoke since October. It is unclear whether the U.S. will attempt to recover the drone fragments, however, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council said Russia would attempt to do so.

Also On Thursday: Polish President Andrzej Duda said the country plans to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, “becoming the first NATO country to provide long-sought warplanes since the Russian invasion began last year” (The Washington Post).

MEDIA ADVISORY: Camera footage release from U.S. Air Force MQ-9 interaction with Russian SU-27 in Black Sea (U.S. European Command)

US releases video of Russian jet dumping fuel on its drone (The Associated Press)

Poland becomes first NATO member to grant Ukraine’s request for fighter jets (The Associated Press)

by Jenna Lee,