The Russian pilots of two Su-27 fighter planes that destroyed an American drone have been honoured by Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The $32 million MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed into the Black Sea on Tuesday after being intercepted by the two Russian fighter jets, in what US officials have said was a deliberate act, possibly in an attempt to seize its data.
The US is in a race against time to recover the Reaper before it falls into Moscow’s hands. However, Russia looks set to win the race as Putin‘s naval salvage vessels are already operating off the coast of Crimea.
Telegram channels indicate special purpose vessels Fizik and Professor Vodyanitskiy both sailed to or near the suspected location of the wreckage in the Black Sea.
It comes after a source close to the Russian defence ministry claimed Kremlin forces had found the downed Reaper drone at a depth of up to 2,953ft in the Black Sea off the major naval port of Sevastopol.
And today, Russia’s defence ministry said Shoigu had presented awards to the pilots who destroyed the American drone.
The Russian pilots of two Su-27 fighter planes that destroyed an American drone have been honoured by Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Pictured: An image from the drone shows the Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper
However, Russia looks set to win the race to find the surveillance drone as Putin’s Black Sea fleet of naval salvage vessels are operating off the coast of Crimea today. Pictured: The Prof Vodyanitskiy research vessel in Russia which is said to be part of the search for the drone
Telegram channels indicate special purpose vessels Fizik (pictured in a file photo) and Professor Vodyanitskiy both sailed to or near the suspected location of the wreckage in the Black Sea
Announcing the awards, the ministry repeated Russia’s version of events – strongly disputed by Washington who have released footage of the crash – that the Russian planes did not make physical contact with the drone.
‘As a result of sharp manoeuvring around 9:30 am (Moscow time), the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface,’ it said.
The Russian ministry said the drone had been flying with its transponders turned off and violating airspace restrictions that Russia had made public in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Washington has previously dismissed these claims, and said two Russian Su-27 fighters intercepted the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper during a reconnaissance mission over the Black Sea in international airspace.
Prior to that, the Su-27s dumped fuel on the MQ-9 and flew in front of it several times for 30 to 40 minutes in ‘a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner’, the US European Command said.
Drone camera footage released yesterday by the Biden administration showed the terrifying confrontation.
The U.S. military’s declassified 42-second colour footage shows a Russian Su-27 approaching the back of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and releasing fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said. Dumping the fuel appeared to be aimed at blinding the drone’s optical instruments to drive it from the area.
On a second approach, either the same jet or another Russian Su-27 that had been shadowing the MQ-9 struck the drone’s propeller, damaging a blade, according to the U.S. military, which said it then ditched the aircraft in the sea.
The video excerpt does not show the collision, although it does show the damage to the propeller.
Now, Russian naval salvage vessels are searching for the destroyed drone in the Black Sea.
The activity by salvage came after a source close to the Russian defence ministry reportedly told the Crimean publication ForPost that an underwater robot had found the drone at a depth of up to 2,953ft in the Black Sea.
The source reportedly said: ‘An underwater robot has descended to the seabed and detected the MQ-9 Reaper at a depth of about 850-900 metres.
‘The deep-water branch of the South Stream gas pipeline runs not far from this area.’
Russian media claimed that Kremlin forces had found the downed US drone near the port
US officials said the MQ-9 Reaper drone was intercepted by two Russian Su-27 jets that dumped fuel on top of the drone before clipping its propeller, forcing it to crash
The $32million US Reaper drone taken out of the sky by Russia
The report said that Russian naval forces are ‘on duty in the area where the US military reconnaissance vehicle fell’.
However there was no official confirmation of the report.
The research vessel Fizik, built in Turkey, is equipped with cranes but the vessel, having left naval port Sevastopol, later returned, said reports.
It remained in Russian territorial waters while the Reaper was reported to have fallen in international waters, according to the US.
The Professor Vodyanitskiy – a scientific research vessel equipped with laboratories, seismic sensors, an echo sounder, an underwater camera and other sophisticated search systems – remained out at sea, said reports.
Earlier, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the UAV may never be recovered from the crash site, admitting that the Reaper wreckage is still in the Black Sea.
The Pentagon also insisted parts could not be retrieved and any intelligence had been wiped.
Russia and NATO member countries routinely intercept each other’s warplanes, but Tuesday’s incident marked the first time since the Cold War that a U.S. aircraft went down during such a confrontation, raising concerns it could bring the United States and Russia closer to a direct conflict.
The MQ-9, which has a 66-foot wingspan, includes a ground control station and satellite equipment. It is capable of carrying munitions, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, would not say whether the ditched drone had been armed.