WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s European command on Thursday released the first declassified video images of the events that led to a Russian warplane colliding with an unarmed US reconnaissance drone on Tuesday, driving the American plane into the Black Sea.
The dramatic 42-second color video clip shows two high-speed flights by two Su-27 fighter jets spraying a substance the Department of Defense calls jet fuel at the MQ-9 Reaper drone. The Pentagon had previously said two Russian jets were involved in the incident, and a senior military official said Thursday the footage showed a passport from each jet.
In a recent flight, one of the Russian jets collides with the drone, the Pentagon says, and camera feeds are lost for about 60 seconds. The released footage does not show the collision. The video then continues to show the plane’s damaged propeller, which the Pentagon says was struck by the Russian jet.
Defense Department officials said the video clip provides visual evidence of the American version of the episode, the first known physical contact between the Russian and American military since the war in Ukraine began last year.
The Ukrainian military on Thursday reported unusual activity by the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, with ships being deployed to search for the drone. Any successful salvage could be used by Moscow for propaganda purposes, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said Russia’s military would only deploy the drone for security reasons, if necessary.
A few hours after the video was released, the Pentagon said it was unlikely Russia could retrieve anything useful.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, called the drone debris “US property.” But he said while Moscow could attempt to get to the rubble, any Russian recovery effort would be difficult. Senior officials said the wreck was likely under 4,000 to 5,000 feet of water.
“Again, we think it’s highly unlikely that even if they did recover it, there wouldn’t be anything useful,” General Ryder said.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Wednesday accused Russia of “dangerous, reckless and unprofessional conduct” by blaming Moscow for shooting down the drone. Russia has denied any wrongdoing, initially saying faulty maneuvering by American drone operators caused the crash.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned the Black Sea into an effective combat zone. Russia has blocked Ukrainian ships in its own ports even though Ukraine was able to export its grain across the sea under a deal signed between the two warring countries last July.
The United States and Ukraine say the American drone flew in international airspace as part of a routine surveillance and reconnaissance mission. American and Ukrainian officials have said they share intelligence gathered during such missions, particularly related to the threat posed by Russian warships and submarines in the Black Sea.
The video clip released Thursday shows just a snippet of what happened in the approximately 40 minutes before the collision, according to Pentagon officials. During that time, while the drone was flying at an altitude of about 7,000 meters, two Russian Su-27 fighter jets made 19 high-speed flights near the Reaper and dumped jet fuel on it during the last three or four, a senior US military official said Wednesday .
The collision happened when one of the Russian planes approached the drone at high speed from behind and struck the MQ-9’s rear propeller, the official said.
The damaged drone limped along before its controllers launched it into the sea about 75 miles southwest of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which Russia was using as a base for devastating attacks.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a larger version of the MQ-1 Predator drone used by the US Air Force until 2018. The Reapers are faster and can carry more ammo, according to the Air Force, which has paid up to $32 million for one of them.