RUSSIA claims it has won the race to find the downed US Reaper drone at the bottom of the Black Sea.
The drone was taken down while flying over the Black Sea near Russian-occupied Crimea and the Ukraine frontline on Tuesday, in a move reportedly authorised by top-level Kremlin officials.
A Russian Su-27 jet struck the propeller of the MQ-9 Reaper drone – forcing it to crash into the sea, the US European Command said.
Prior to the collision, which happened at 7am local time, two Su-27s had “dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9” in a “reckless” and “unprofessional” manner.
Footage of the moment has now been released by the US European Command.
It shows one of the Russian fighter jets zooming towards the drone before flying above it – dumping fuel on it.
Russia claimed to have located the drone at a depth of up to 2,953 ft in the Black Sea off major naval port Sevastopol.
A source close to the Russian defence ministry told ForPost, a publication in annexed Crimea: “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.”
The report said that Russian naval forces are “on duty in the area where the US military reconnaissance vehicle fell”.
A day earlier there were claims from Russian sources in leaked radio transmissions that some debris from the American drone had been found on the surface.
There was no official confirmation of the ForPost claim.
It is unclear how long a Russian salvage operation might take to raise the downed drone.
Meanwhile the go-ahead for the confrontation was given by “highest levels” in the Kremlin, officials familiar with the intelligence told NBC.
“Russian leadership’s intention is to be aggressive in the intercept,” one of the officials said.
But so far there are no clear indications Vladimir Putin himself ordered the jets to intercept the drone.
The jets swooped over the drone several times and on one flight over, the drone’s propeller was struck – prompting it to come down in international waters.
The broken propeller can be seen spinning in the clip before the drone crashes.
It is the first time since the height of the Cold War that a US aircraft has been brought down by the Russians.
Russia is now trying to recover the wreckage of the drone, while the US has also confirmed it is searching for remnants.
The US has been sending drones over the Black Sea since the Ukraine war started but has now warned the flights could be a flashpoint with Russia.
“This incident follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting with US and Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea,” said the command.
“These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price slammed what he called Russia’s “brazen violation of international law”.
US Air Force General James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa also condemned the Russians.
He said: “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.”
“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the Russian planes had been stalking the drone prior to the collision.
“It seems like approximately 30 to 40 minutes they were flying in the vicinity of this MQ-9,” he said.
EYES IN THE SKY: What is a US Reaper drone?
THE United States’ Reaper drone, also known as the MQ-9, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used primarily for surveillance, reconnaissance, and precision strike missions.
The drone is larger and more advanced than the Raptor/Predator drone, and has a longer range and endurance.
Some of the capabilities of the Reaper drone include:
Surveillance and reconnaissance
The Reaper drone is equipped with a variety of sensors and cameras that allow it to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance from a distance. This makes it useful for monitoring enemy activities, identifying targets, and assessing damage after a strike.
The Reaper drone can carry a range of weapons, including Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II bombs, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). This makes it a versatile tool for precision strikes on enemy positions, vehicles, and personnel.
Long flight time
The Reaper drone has a maximum endurance of up to 27 hours, allowing it to stay aloft for extended periods of time and cover vast areas of territory.
The Reaper drone is capable of signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT), which allows it to intercept and analyze enemy communications and electronic emissions.
In addition to its primary mission, the Reaper drone is also capable of engaging in air-to-air combat using air-to-air missiles, making it a potent tool for aerial warfare.
Horrified US military personnel in Germany watched a live feed from the drone as the Russian jets repeatedly flew around it, dumping fuel to damage cameras and sensors, the New York Times reports.
Senior US officials have been worried for months that some sort of incident over the Black Sea could lead to miscommunication and confrontation.
The US has been operating Reapers drones over the Black Sea since before the beginning of the war to track Russian movements on the Ukraine battlefield
The drones can fly up to 50,000 feet for 10 hours making them ideal for gathering intelligence and performing reconnaissance for extended periods of time.
Russians said the drone manoeuvred sharply and crashed into water after its fighter jets were scrambled to intercept it near Crimea
Moscow denied its warplanes came into contact with the drone and insisted they didn’t fire their weapons to shoot down the drone, which would have been an act of war.
The area where the incident happened is believed to be where there is intense NATO military activity close to the frontlines of the Ukraine war.
The United States uses MQ-9 Reapers for both surveillance and strikes and has operated the drones in a variety of location, including in the Middle East and Africa.
Other countries, including Britain and France, also fly Reapers.