US releases video of Black Sea drone incident with Russian jet

Pentagon says declassified footage shows Russian Su-27 approaching the back of MQ-9 drone and beginning to release fuel as it passes.

The United States military has released footage it says is of an unsafe interception of a US drone by a Russian jet over the Black Sea.

The US on Tuesday alleged that a Russian Su-27 fighter jet struck one of its Reaper drones during a surveillance and reconnaissance mission, forcing US operators to bring it down in international waters. Russia denied it deliberately brought the unmanned aerial vehicle down.

The declassified 42-second footage released by the US European Command shows the Su-27 fighter jet approaching the back of the MQ-9 drone and dumping fuel near it, in what US officials said said was an apparent attempt to blind its optical instruments.

The released excerpt also shows the loss of the video feed after another close Russian manoeuvre, which the Pentagon said resulted from the Russian jet’s collision with the drone. It ends with images of the drone’s damaged propeller, which the Pentagon says resulted from the collision, making the aircraft inoperable.

Russia has denied US accusations that its jets acted recklessly in what was the first direct US-Russian incident since the war in Ukraine began last year. Instead, it has blamed “sharp manoeuvring” by the drone for the crash, claiming its jet did not make contact.

Commenting on the video, Samir Puri, a visiting lecturer in war studies at King’s College London, said he did not think it was possible to determine with certainty whether the encounter was intentional or accidental.

“If the Russian pilot intended to physically knock out this drone, as in fly so close to it to actually touch his own aircraft, that’s an extremely risky manoeuvre for that pilot,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I still think on balance this may have been something that Russians would do to pass very closely, to demonstrate, of course, that they want to show that they have mastery over these skies and that the Americans, they can’t fly these intelligence flights undisturbed.”

Escalation threat

While intercept attempts are not uncommon, the incident amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns it could bring Kyiv backer Washington and Moscow closer to direct conflict.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley on Wednesday spoke to their Russian counterparts, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, about the incident.

The Russian defence ministry, in its report of the call with Austin that Shoigu, accused the US of provoking the incident by ignoring flight restrictions the Kremlin had imposed because of its military operations in Ukraine.

Russia also blamed “the intensification of intelligence activities against the interests of the Russian Federation”.

Such US actions “are fraught with escalation of the situation in the Black Sea area”, the ministry said, warning that Russia “will respond in kind to all provocations”.

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, said US officials insist that the military would continue flying drones in the Black Sea despite the concern of escalation.

“The military says that these are surveillance flights that are being conducted legally, lawfully and consistent with international law over international waters in international airspace,” Halkett said.

“What you’re seeing and what this has exposed are very dangerous high-risk escalations in hostilities. What we know is that both sides are now accusing the other of provocations, and the big concern in all of this is the threat of retaliation on both sides.”

Al Jazeera’s defence editor, Alex Gatopoulos, on the Black Sea incident:

“Russia has been very clear that it will not allow NATO aircraft to operate so close to its area of military operations. Russian jets recently drone off a British surveillance plane from flying too close to the Ukrainian coast.

“Two things are highlighted by the Black Sea incident. Regardless of whether the Russian Flanker meant to clip the drone, the dumping of fuel onto the drone would never have been done to a manned aircraft and the pilot’s intention was to destroy it.

“The second thing is these types of drones, the US MQ-9 Reaper, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 and China’s Wing Loong 2 are useful tools for tracking and destroying insurgents with no means to retaliate but they are hopelessly outclassed by modern fighter aircraft.

“These drones, flying at World War II speeds, are easily outmanoeuvred by jet fighters that don’t even need to use their weapons to destroy them.

“A new generation of armed drone is coming online that will be able to survive operating against a near-peer adversary like Russia in a highly contested airspace like those that border the Ukrainian coast.

“The age of the unmanned fighter jet is upon us.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies