This post has been updated on March 16 to include video of the incident released by the US Department of Defense. The story was originally published on March 14, 2022.
At 7:03 am Central European Time on March 14, one of a pair of Russian Su-27 fighter jets flying over the Black Sea struck the propeller of an MQ-9 reaper drone piloted by the United States. According to US European Command, the strike against the propeller required the drone’s remote pilots to bring it down into international water. It is hardly the first takedown of a Reaper drone, nor is it even the first time Russian forces have caused the destruction of such a plane, but any confrontation between military aircraft of the world’s two foremost nuclear-armed states can understandably feel tense.
Since 2021, the United States has based MQ-9 Reaper drones in Romania, a NATO ally that borders both Ukraine and the Black Sea. These Reapers, as well as Reapers flown from elsewhere, were part of the overall aerial surveillance mission undertaken by the United States and NATO on the eve of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
What happened over the Black Sea?
The basics of the incident are as follows: “Our 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,” said US Air Force general James B. Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, in a statement about the incident published by US European Command. “In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash. US and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely.” (Watch video of the incident here.)
This is language that emphasizes the incident as a mistake or malfeasance by the two Russian Su-27 pilots. It is not, notably, a demand that the loss of a Reaper be met with more direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, even as the US backs Ukraine with supplies and, often, intelligence as it fights against the continued Russia invasion. In the years prior to Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, Russian jets have harassed US aircraft over the Black Sea. It is a common enough occurrence that the think tank RAND has even published a study on what kind of signals Russia intends to send when it intercepts aircraft near but not in Russian airspace.
“Several times before the collision,” according to European Command, “the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defence also released a statement on the incident, claiming that the Reaper was flying without a transponder turned on, that the Reaper was headed for Russian borders, and that the plane crashed of its own accord, without any contact with Russian jets.
In a press briefing the afternoon of March 14, Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder noted that the Russian pilots were flying near the drone for 30 to 40 minutes before the collision that damaged the Reaper. Asked if the drone was near Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea that was part of Ukraine until Russia occupied it in 2014, Ryder said only that the flight was in international waters and well clear of any territory of Ukraine. Ryder also did not clarify when asked about whether or not the Reaper was armed, saying instead that it was conducting an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) mission.
The New York Times reported that the drone was not armed, citing a military official.
What is an MQ-9 Reaper?
The Reaper is an uncrewed aerial vehicle, propelled by a pusher prop. It is made by General Atomics, and is an evolution of the Predator drone, which started as an unarmed scout before being adapted into a lightly armed bomber. The Reaper entered operational service in October 2007, and it was designed from the start to carry weapons. It can wield nearly 4,000 pounds of explosives, like laser guided bombs, or up to eight Hellfire missiles.
They measure 36 feet from tip to tail and have a wingspan of 66 feet, and in 2020 cost about $18 million apiece.
To guide remote pilots for takeoff and landing, Reapers have a forward-facing camera, mounted at the front of their match-shaped airframes. To perceive the world below, and offer useful real-time video and imaging, a sensor pod complete with laser target designator, infrared camera, and electro-optical cameras pivots underneath the front of the drone, operated by a second crew member on the ground: the sensor operator.
Reapers can stay airborne at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet for up to 24 hours, with remote crews guiding the plane in shifts and trading off mid-flight. The Reaper’s long endurance, not just hours in the sky but its ability to operate up to 1,150 miles away from where it took off, lets it watch vast areas, looking for relevant movement below. This was a crucial part of how the US fought the counter insurgency in Iraq and especially Afghanistan, where armed Reapers watched for suspected enemies proved an enduring feature of the war, to mixed results.
While Reapers have been used for well over a decade, they have mostly seen action in skies relatively clear of hostile threats. A Reaper’s top speed is just 276 mph, and while its radar can see other aircraft, the Su-27 air superiority fighter can run laps around it at Mach 2.35. In seeking a future replacement for Reapers, the US Air Force has stated an intention that these planes be able to defend themselves against other aircraft.
Have drones like the Reaper been shot down before?
The most famous incident of a US drone shoot-down is the destruction of an RQ-4 Global Hawk by Iran in June 2019. This unarmed surveillance drone was operating in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, a highly trafficked waterway that borders Iran on one side and the Arabian Peninsula on the other. Iran claimed the Global Hawk was shot down within Iran’s territorial waters; the United States argued instead that the drone was operating in international waters. While the crisis did not escalate beyond the destruction of the drone, it was unclear at the time that this incident would end calmly.
Reapers have been shot down by militaries including the US Air Force. In 2009, US pilots lost control of an MQ-9 Reaper over Afghanistan, so a crewed fighter shot it down proactively before it crashed into another country.
In 2017 and again in 2019, Houthi insurgent forces in Yemen shot down US Reapers flying over the country. Reapers have also been lost to jamming, when the signals between operators and drone were obstructed or cut, as plausibly happened to a Reaper operated by the Italian military over Libya in 2019.
Ultimately, the March 14 takedown of the Reaper by Russian fighters appears to be part of the larger new normal of drones as a part of regular military patrols. Like with the US destruction of a surveillance balloon in the Atlantic, the most interesting lesson is less what happened between aircraft in the sky, and more what is discovered by whoever gets to the wrecked aircraft in the water first.