Downing of MQ-9 Reaper is latest US drone lost in contested zone
WASHINGTON — An American intelligence drone splashed into international waters this week after Russian warplanes intercepted, harassed and eventually hurled it in over the Black Sea near Ukraine, U.S. defense officials said.
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle was flying a routine surveillance mission when it and one of two nearby Su-27 jets collided around 7 a.m. local time on March 14, the US European Command said. The drone’s propeller became unflyable, uncontrollable, so we brought it down, according to Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, who described it as “unflyable.”
While military interceptions of planes are common – and usually follow a set of rules of engagement – the allegedly antagonistic nature of Tuesday’s incident has left him in sharp relief.
Samuel Bendett, an expert at the Center for Marine Analysis, C4ISRNET said that Russian media and other parties are “closely monitoring drone flights in the Black Sea and near Crimea and are publishing flight maps of American drones in that area.” The general mood, he said, was “one of anger and resentment that the US has such tools at its disposal to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance without an overt Russian response.”
“Sooner or later,” he continued, “this pent-up anger would erupt and the Russians would react one way or another.”
The collision was the first known physical contact between US and Russian forces since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Here are five more US drones shot down, lost or downed in contested areas since 2015:
Libya, 2022 and 2019
An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper crashed near Benghazi, Libya in August 2022, prompting an investigation by US Africa Command.
A command spokesman at the time told the Military Times that the drone was “operating in support of the diplomatic engagements of US Ambassador and Special Envoy to Libya Richard Norland” when it went down. It was unclear what the cause was.
In 2019, officials from the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army apologized for shooting down an unspecified US drone near the capital Tripoli after mistaking it for a Turkish-made model used by rival militias.
The US uses unmanned aerial vehicles in Africa to monitor extremist groups and kill militants.
Strait of Hormuz, 2019
Amid already high international tensions over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and violence in the Strait of Hormuz, an international oil strait, the US announced in June 2019 that a Northrop Grumman-manufactured Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone was hit by an Iranian surface plane. air rocket.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella Jr., then commander of US Air Forces Central Command, described the attack as unprovoked.
“At the time of the intercept, the RQ-4 was operating at a high altitude, approximately 34 kilometers from the nearest land point on the Iranian coast,” Guastella told reporters at the Pentagon. “This dangerous and escalating attack was irresponsible and occurred near established air corridors between Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Muscat, Oman and potentially endangered innocent civilians.”
The incident almost sparked armed conflict between the US and Iran as then-President Donald Trump considered his options for retaliation, including attacks on missile and radar sites.
Iranian officials claim the RQ-4 violated their airspace.
Houthi rebels shot down an MQ-9 Reaper over Yemen in June 2019 with an SA-6 surface-to-air missile designated US Central Command.
The drone was likely attacked with Iranian support, the command said at the time, citing a clear “improvement over previous Houthi capabilities.”
Days later, CENTCOM said a modified SA-7 surface-to-air missile failed to take out another MQ-9 that was monitoring activity in the Gulf of Oman. The missile missed them by at least 1 kilometer.
The Air Force admitted in 2015 that a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator was shot down in Syria, after previously saying it lost contact with a drone during an intelligence-gathering flight.
Syria’s official news agency at the time said air defenses hit an “enemy US surveillance plane,” the Washington Post reported.
Air Force Times reporter Rachel Cohen contributed to this article.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously reported for a South Carolina newspaper on the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration—specifically, the Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development. Colin is also an award winning photographer.