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Mon, Mar 20, 2023

Russia Honors Pilots Who Downed U.S. MQ-9

The Subjectivity of Heroism

The pilots of two Russian Su-27 Flanker jet fighters ostensibly responsible for bringing down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) over the Black Sea on Tuesday, 14 March 2023 have been honored by their country.

In a statement announcing the aviators’ imminent awards, the Russian Ministry of Defense contended that the two pilots had "prevented the violation" of a military exclusion zone established by Moscow. The statement went on to assert that the Su-27s flown by the feted pilots neither deployed their weapons nor came into contact with the MQ-9.

Conversely, the United States alleges the two Russian Su-27s dumped jet fuel over the MQ-9 in what U.S. Air Force General James B. Hecker called a "reckless and unprofessional manner," before one of the fighter jets made physical contact with the UAV, thereby rendering the $20-million General Atomics contraption "unflyable and uncontrollable.”

According to Pentagon accounts, the U.S. military purposefully crashed the damaged UAV into the Black Sea, but not before technicians were able to wipe the drone of sensitive data—lest it fall into Russian hands.

The Russian statement set forth that the awards with which the two Su-27 pilots had been honored were presented by Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defense and a key ally of Vladimir Putin. The statement reported, also, that the U.S. drone had violated the borders of an area established by Moscow "for the purposes of conducting a special military operation,”—the latter being the official Russian euphemism describing Moscow’s ongoing belligerence in Ukraine.

The statement continued: "In order to identify the intruder, fighters from the air defense forces on duty were lifted into the air. [The] MQ-9 went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface. Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons, did not come into contact with an unmanned aerial vehicle and returned safely to their home base."

Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov remarked it was "a shame" that America had lost its drone, adding: "I repeat, for those who have not gathered themselves to look at the situation objectively: Our fighters did not come into contact with the American UAV. Russia did everything possible to prevent this kind of incident—it informed the international community in good time about the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation."

On Thursday, 16 March, the U.S. European Command released video footage reportedly recorded by an aft-facing camera aboard the MQ-9. The camera’s field of view encapsulates a portion of the UAV’s empennage and the lower 180° of its propeller-arc. Two passes of a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet are depicted. The first culminates with a pixelated screen U.S. officials ascribe to jet-fuel being dumped on the MQ-9 by the passing Russian jet. The video-feed, restored some seconds later, captures what appears to be the UAV’s propeller turning normally. The second Su-27 pass culminates with another pixelated screen, but resolves to a view of the MQ-9’s propeller turning listlessly and one of its four blades sporting a badly-bent tip.

Speaking at a 15 March briefing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley stated: "It [the MQ-9] probably broke up, probably not a lot to recover, frankly. … As far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence, etc., as normal we would take, and we did take, mitigating measures. So we are quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value."

Ukraine, meanwhile, maintains the alleged incident is a Russian attempt to escalate U.S. involvement in the Russo-Ukraine conflict. Ukrainian officials, however, offered no reason why Moscow would seek to directly engage the U.S. in a shooting war.

Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated: "The incident with the American MQ-9 Reaper UAV—provoked by Russia over the Black Sea—is Putin's way of signaling his readiness to expand the conflict to involve other parties. … The purpose of this all-in tactic is to always be raising the stakes."

On Wednesday, 15 March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Milley undertook conversations with their Russian counterparts; neither officials’ office provided details pertaining to the content of subject discussions. What’s more, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov—who repudiated the U.S. account of the Black Sea incident—was summoned to Washington D.C.

"We assume that the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media and stop flights near Russian borders," Antonov asserted.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy conveyed a similarly terse message to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Developed in the early 2000s by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems primarily for the United States Air Force, the MQ-9 is a dated platform. Specimens of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) have been lost over Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries predisposed to enmity with the U.S. and their wreckage likely recovered by enemy combatants. What, if any, military intelligence the downed MQ-9 drone might yield to Moscow remains unclear. 



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