Recovery of a US surveillance drone that crashed after being intercepted by Russian fighter jets would be challenging given the deep waters in the Black Sea, a senior United States general said, as reports emerged of Russian vessels at the crash site.
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said remains of the uncrewed MQ-9 Reaper drone, which the US claims was brought down by one of two Russian Su-27 jets clipping the drone’s propeller, sank in waters as deep as 1,219 to 1,524 meters (4,000 to 5,000 feet).
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“It probably sank to some significant depths, so any recovery operation from a technical standpoint would be very difficult,” Milley told reporters on Wednesday. Milley added it would take several days before the US would know for certain the size of the debris field.
Moscow – which denies that its jets were in physical contact with the drone – said it would try to retrieve the drone wreckage as reports emerged on Thursday of US officials confirming that Russian ships had reached the crash site.
ABC News senior Pentagon reporter Luis Martinez tweeted that two US officials had confirmed the presence of Russian ships at the location of the crash in the Black Sea.
2 U.S. officials confirm Russian ships are at the location where the MQ-9 drone crashed into the Black sea.
— luis martinez (@LMartinezABC) March 16, 2023
The Black Sea borders both Russia and Ukraine.
Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev told the Rossiya-1 TV channel on Wednesday that Russia would attempt a recovery operation for the US spy drone.
“I don’t know whether we will be able to retrieve it or not but it has to be done. And we’ll certainly work on it. I hope, of course, successfully,” he said.
Milley said the US had taken measures to ensure there would be no loss of sensitive intelligence if the drone were to be salvaged by Russia.
“We’re quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value,” Milley said.
Patrushev also said the drone incident proved that the US was involved in the war in Ukraine. “This is another confirmation that they are directly involved in these actions, in the war,” he said.
Moscow’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said Washington deploying a drone thousands of kilometres from the US and near to Russia’s borders proved it was collecting intelligence for the Ukrainian army to help it carry out attacks on Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials cautioned on Wednesday that the drone’s downing signalled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention to “expand the conflict”.
“The purpose of this all-in tactic is to always be raising the stakes,” Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on social media.
The incident with the American MQ-9 Reaper UAV, provoked by russia in the Black Sea, is putin’s signal of readiness to expand the conflict zone with the involvement of other parties.
— Oleksiy Danilov (@OleksiyDanilov) March 15, 2023
But with US officials saying the Russian plane may have unintentionally collided with the drone and Moscow maintaining the jets did not interfere physically with the aircraft, it appeared both sides were focused on restraint and averting a military escalation at a time of already fraught relations over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Milley, the US general, said it was clear the intercept and harassment of the drone by Russian jets was intentional but it was unclear whether the Russian aircraft deliberately made contact with the MQ-9 – a manoeuvre that could also put the Russian jet at risk.
“Was it intentional or not? Don’t know yet,” Milley said.
Earlier on Wednesday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the incident was likely unintentional.
Milley also spoke with his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, in a rare phone call on Wednesday, the Pentagon said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, after the incident but did not reveal details of their conversation.