U.S. Unsure If Russia Meant To Down MQ-9, Recovery Unlikely

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 in Romania in 2021.

Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. is not yet sure if a pair of Russian fighters intended to down an MQ-9 Reaper UAV over the Black .Sea on March 14 and is not certain it can recover the wreckage because Russia has announced its own effort. 

U.S. European Command said in a statement that two Russian Su-27s harassed the MQ-9 in international airspace, passed close by, dumped fuel and eventually one of them collided with the Reaper. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said during a March 15 briefing that there is video evidence of the fuel dumping and there is no question that it was intentional.

“The actual physical contact, I’m not so sure,” Milley says.

The U.S. knows where the MQ-9 went down, in an area with a depth of between 4,000-5,000 ft. of water off the Crimea coast. The wreckage likely broke up into small pieces, so there is likely not much to recover. The U.S. does not have ships in the area for salvage operations, but Milley says “we do have a lot of allies and friends” who can help.

Milley says the U.S. is not worried about sensitive intelligence on the MQ-9.

“We did take mitigating measures, so we are quite confident that whatever was a value is no longer a value,” he says. 

Russia’s security council says it will attempt to recover the Reaper’s wreckage.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that after the incident he called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to raise his concerns about what he called a pattern of unprofessional operations by Russian aircraft in the region. Despite that, the U.S. will keep flying in the region.

“The U.S. will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” Austin says.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.