The Pentagon has released a declassified video showing a Russian fighter jet close-passing a $32 million US Reaper drone over the Black Sea before spraying it with jet fuel and causing it to crash.
The footage reveals that the Su-27 Flanker made two exceptionally close passes of the uncrewed drone, a tactic that US experts claim has not been seen before. On the second pass, the jet got so close to the MQ-9 Reaper that the camera briefly became pixelated, suggesting a collision had occurred. After the drone sustained severe damage, it was forced down by the US Air Force and landed in the Black Sea.
According to General Erik Kurilla, head of US Central Command, Russian planes have also become more aggressive towards US bases in Syria over the past two weeks, flying loaded with weapons in an attempt to provoke US forces. He told the Senate armed services committee,
“What we are seeing is an increase recently in the unprofessional and unsafe behavior of the Russian air force in the region. We have seen a significant spike since about 1 March.”
US officials have confirmed that there was a collision and dumping of fuel, as depicted in the video. Still, they have not determined the Russian pilot’s intent or whether it was intentional. When the footage is paused, viewers can see that the Su-27 was armed with at least four missiles. The US has stated that the Reaper drone was unarmed and was most likely undertaking surveillance and reconnaissance related to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Pentagon has revealed that the US military edited the footage for length. Still, it accurately shows events in the correct order at the end of a period of sustained harassment by two Russian jets.
Earlier this week, US air force officials reported that the two Su-27s spent at least 30 minutes attempting to disrupt the drone by flying in front of it and dumping fuel on it. The jets flew close to the drone 19 times, spraying jet fuel on the last three or four occasions.
Russia has denied US accusations that its jets acted recklessly and denies that its aircraft came into contact with the drone. Instead, Russian officials maintain that the drone fell from the sky after making a sharp maneuver and flew towards Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a large remotely piloted aircraft, measuring 11 meters long and with a wingspan of more than 22 meters. It can be armed if necessary, but the US Air Force states that its primary purpose is as an intelligence-collection asset. However, it has frequently been used in drone strikes against targets as part of the ongoing “war on terror.”
The defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, and joint chiefs of staff chair, Gen Mark Milley, have already spoken to their Russian counterparts about the incident.
Justin Bronk, an aviation analyst with the Rusi think tank, said that the video reveals “two extremely close and unprofessional passes at significant angles of attack,” which supports the US’s claims that the Russian pilot flew recklessly and accidentally collided with the MQ-9.
On Wednesday, the Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, labeled the incident a provocation and accused the US of providing intelligence to Kyiv.