The incident, which raised tensions over Moscow's war in Ukraine, appeared to mark the first time since the height of the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft was brought down after being hit by a Russian warplane.
U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to White House National Security spokesman John Kirby. He added that U.S. State Department officials would be speaking directly with their Russian counterparts and “expressing our concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional intercept.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price called it a “brazen violation of international law.” He said the U.S. summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge a protest and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, has made similar representations in Moscow.
The U.S. European Command said in a statement that two Russian Su-27 fighter jets “conducted an unsafe and unprofessional intercept” of a U.S. MQ-9 drone that was operating within international airspace over the Black Sea.
It said one of the Russian fighters “struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing U.S. forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters.” Prior to that, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 several times before the collision in “a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” the U.S. European Command said in a statement from Stuttgart, Germany.
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” it added.
U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said the MQ-9 aircraft was "conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9.” He added that “in fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
There was no immediate reaction from Moscow, which has repeatedly voiced concern about U.S. intelligence flights close to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin has charged that by providing weapons to Ukraine and sharing intelligence information with Kyiv, the U.S. and its allies have effectively become engaged in the conflict.
Kirby emphasized that the incident wouldn’t deter the U.S. from continuing their missions in the area.
“if the message is that they want to deter or dissuade us from flying, and operating in international airspace, over the Black Sea, then that message will fail,” Kirby said, adding “that is not going to happen.”
“We’re going to continue to fly and operate in international airspace over international waters,” he said. “The Black Sea belongs to no one nation.”
The U.S. European Command said the incident followed a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with U.S. and Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea.
“These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,” it warned.
Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said that this type of collision is his greatest concern, both in that area of Europe as well as in the Pacific.
“Probably my biggest worry both there and in the Pacific is an aggressive Russia or China pilot or vessel captain, or something gets too close, doesn’t realize where they are, and causes a collision,” Berger said, in response to a question at a National Press Club event on Tuesday.
He said that whether an incident is intentional or not, it forces nation’s leaders to try and sort it out quickly from afar.