The General Atomics drone that crashed into the Black Sea may never be recovered, White House spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday after the craft was intercepted by Russian fighter jets, worsening taut relations between Washington and Moscow.
In the first such incident since the Ukraine war began, Russian Su-27 jets struck the propeller of the MQ-9 Reaper drone and made it inoperable, the Pentagon said. Russia’s defense ministry blamed “sharp maneuvering” of the drone for the crash and said that its jets did not make contact.
The craft, built by the San Diego-based defense contractor, is a hunter-killer drone designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. Over 300 are in service.
“It has not been recovered,” Kirby said in an interview with CNN. “And I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to recover it. Where it fell into the Black Sea — very, very deep water. So we’re still assessing whether there can be any kind of recovery effort. There may not be.”
If the Russians recover the craft, U.S. authorities have taken precautions to ensure that their ability to draw useful intelligence will be limited, Kirby told ABC.
“That said, it’s our property,” Kirby added, and U.S. authorities will continue to explore recovery options.
The incident over international waters on Tuesday was a reminder of the risk of direct confrontation between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, which Moscow invaded over a year ago and which Western allies have supported with intelligence and weapons.
The State Department on Tuesday summoned Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, to express U.S. concerns over the encounter.
“The message that we delivered to the Russian ambassador is that they need to be more careful in flying in international airspace near U.S. assets that are, again, flying in completely legal ways, conducting missions in support of our national security interests,” Kirby said on CNN. “They’re the ones that need to be more careful.
“The message was: Don’t do this again,” Kirby added later on ABC.
Antonov after the meeting said that the drone “deliberately and provocatively was moving toward Russian territory with transponders turned off.”
Antonov said his meeting at the State Department was constructive and the issue of possible consequences for Moscow over the incident was not raised, RIA state news agency reported.
American officials have stressed that the United States would continue to fly over international waters in the area.
“And it is incumbent upon Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday at the start of a virtual monthly meeting with allies on arming Ukraine.