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US drone downing: Unanswered questions and conflicting accounts

The US has claimed a Russian fighter jet dumped fuel on an American drone over the Black Sea and then collided with it, causing the drone to crash, a charge Russia denies.  

Both the US and Russian officials have conflicting accounts of the incident which took place on March 14, raising several questions.

The two sides agree on the fact Russian jets were scrambled in response to the US drone flying over the Black Sea, near the Moscow-annexed Crimean peninsula and that the US drone eventually crashed. 

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What did the US say?

According to statements from the Pentagon and US European Command, two Russian Su-27 planes poured fuel onto an MQ-9 drone that was on a routine surveillance mission over the Black Sea in international airspace. 

One of the Russian jets reportedly flew around and ahead of the drone for approximately 30 to 40 minutes before colliding with the MQ-9’s propeller.

Following this, US forces brought the drone down in international waters. 

General James Hecker, the commander of US Air Forces Europe and Africa, stated that the Russian aircraft’s actions almost caused both a US drone and a Russian jet to crash. 

General Pat Ryder, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, added that the collision likely caused damage to the Russian fighter jet, although he did not disclose its landing location.

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Russia’s response  

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, a US drone was found flying at a close range to the Russian border near the Crimean peninsula, prompting the Russian military to dispatch fighter jets to intercept it.

The ministry claimed that the US drone made a sudden manoeuvre and lost control until it came crashing down into the water.

From 2014 onwards, Russia has prohibited air traffic from accessing extensive regions near Crimea. Moscow has often accused the US of flying surveillance planes in close proximity to its borders despite its warnings. 

The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, compared America’s posturing to Russia’s hypothetical positioning of drones off the US coast for intelligence-gathering purposes. 

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Recovering the debris

This incident has raised concerns about the potential recovery of sensitive US technology by Russia.

The MQ-9 Reaper drone, costing around $32 million, is a valuable military asset that can be used for surveillance and airstrikes, and the US will want to ensure that no sensitive technology falls into Russia’s hands. 

However, neither Moscow nor the Pentagon has confirmed whether they are taking steps to gather any debris or pieces of the fallen drone. 

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Was the drone armed?

Another unanswered question is whether the US drone was equipped with weaponry.

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Reaper was frequently used for airstrikes. 

The drone, which was first put into operation in 2007, taking over the Air Force’s smaller Predator drones, has the capacity to transport up to eight missiles guided by lasers, such as Hellfire missiles and other advanced weaponry.

Neither side has confirmed or denied whether the drone was armed. 

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Previous incidents

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, there have been several incidents of near collisions between Russian and American planes. 

In 2017, a Su-27 plane flew perilously close to a surveillance plane called RC-135 Rivet Joint.

The following year, a Russian warplane crossed in front of a US EP-3 spy plane, and in 2020, a Su-27 flew right in front of a US B-52 bomber.

While military intercepts between US and Russian aircraft are routine and have happened a number of times, this incident is the first one to happen since the Russia-Ukraine war broke out last February.

The fact that it resulted in a crash is also unprecedented.

As tensions continue to rise between Russia and the US, it remains to be seen what the long-term implications of this incident will be for the two countries.

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