Geopolitical Insights

SITREP – U.S. Reaper Drone Forced Down by Russian Fighters in Black Sea

March 14, 2023
What has Happened:
  • This afternoon, a Russian Su-27 jet collided with a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper reconnaissance drone over the Black Sea (in international airspace and over international waters).
  • One of the Russian jets intentionally dumped fuel in front of the drone, and one then damaged the propeller causing the drone to crash into the Black Sea.
  • Reaper drones can fly as high as 50,000 feet (for extended periods) and have sensors/capabilities to gather intelligence making it an ideal platform to monitor developments on the battlefield in Ukraine and in the Black Sea.
  • This is the first incident where Russian and U.S. military aircraft have come into direct contact since the war in Ukraine started last February and this is likely going to increase tensions.
  • Unfortunately, this kind of behavior by Russian forces is "not uncommon" and Russian aircraft routinely intercept U.S. aircraft over the Black Sea (there have been other intercepts in recent weeks).
Why it Matters:

“A Russian SU-27 Flanker fighter, paired with a second SU-27, collided with a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone that was conducting operations in international airspace. The drone made a forced landing in the Black Sea. It is not clear if the Russian fighter intentionally interfered with the Reaper drone but a USAF spokesperson indicated that, “the collision seems to be simple incompetence.” Russian leadership is not shy about using their fighter aircraft or naval vessels to threaten U.S. military deployments. In November 2020, a Russian destroyer threatened to ram into a U.S. guided missile destroyer, the USS John S McCain, while underway in international waters in the Sea of Japan. Just last year on 16 February 2022, a week before Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, a Russian fighter flew dangerously close to three U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft in the Mediterranean. In both instances, the U.S. refused to take the bait. This latest incident clearly shows that escalatory actions by the Russians are real. They would love for the United States to respond and send one of its aircraft into the Black Sea, anticipating that domestic Russian outrage would bolster support for Putin. Additionally, this is clearly a “sphere of influence” issue for Russia. The Black Sea is their safe operation zone, especially now during this conflict. This incident will have no effect on U.S. operational tempo in support of Ukraine. The U.S. will continue to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace.” - General Spider Marks

  “This incident seems to be a foolish act which displays provocative stupidity. Apparently, the Russian aircraft dumped fuel on the Reaper as well as made very close passes in front of the aircraft causing a propeller collision. Unprovoked and unprofessional but not unprecedented. This reminds me of frequent Cold War tactics by Russian aircraft. I doubt that this will lead to any immediate escalation but clearly the Russians will get an earful from the DoD, DoS, and NATO. This is the type of provocative action that can lead to unexpected consequences especially if it occurs near contested airspace.” - General Frank Kearney

  “The Russian attack on an aircraft flying in international airspace was a clear violation of international law. The UN Security Council should sanction Russia’s action, and while it pales in comparison to the Russian government’s crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Ukraine, it is further evidence of their irresponsible behavior and criminality.” - General David Deptula

  “The U.S. and NATO are keeping Putin and Russia from winning the war with Ukraine by supplying arms and intelligence support. The only surprise in the downing of the U.S. MQ-9 drone is that it didn’t occur sooner. It’s an opportunity for Putin to operate in the grey zone and push back on U.S. and NATO support in hopes that this act diminishes western support to Ukraine.” - General Robert Walsh