The U.S. European Command has declassified footage showing the moments when two Russian fighter jets flew very close to a U.S. drone over the Black Sea, dumping fuel on it — and, the Pentagon says, eventually flying into the drone. The video footage appears to show the U.S. craft was damaged by a collision.
U.S. officials believe the Russian fighter jets' harassment of the downed U.S. drone was approved by senior Russian officials, NPR has confirmed. But the U.S. says it remains unknown whether the Russian pilot intended to hit the drone, or if they made a mistake.
The release of the video comes two days after the Pentagon said a Russian Su-27 fighter clipped the propeller of an uncrewed MQ-9 Reaper drone that was operating in international airspace, forcing it down into the water. The Kremlin says its jets did not make contact with the drone.
Video shows two close passes by Russian fighters
The footage gives brief glimpses of the encounter, which U.S. officials say lasted for at least a half hour. The Pentagon says the video depicts events in the order they happened, although it was edited to condense the action.
In the 42-second video, a Russian Su-27 aircraft is seen approaching from the drone's rear quarter, releasing a plume of fuel as it pulls upward and over the drone, causing the footage to partially pixelate. The camera recovers as the fighter jet pulls away, showing the drone's rear-mounted propeller in normal working condition.
The footage then shows what the Pentagon says is an "even closer" pass from a Russian jet.
Approaching from what looks to be a lower angle, the Su-27 releases more fuel and its fuselage is seen coming extremely close to the drone before the video cuts out entirely. The Pentagon says the camera feed was lost for around 60 seconds.
When the feed returns, the camera, which is mounted beneath the MQ-9, pivots to show the drone's propeller has been partially mangled.
Shortly afterward, the aircraft crashed into the Black Sea off the southern coast of Ukraine — a country that the U.S. and dozens of other countries are supporting in its war against Russia. The U.S. has been monitoring movements by Russian troops and warships in the area.
Pentagon calls Russian military action "reckless"
The U.S. European Command described the encounter as "an unsafe and unprofessional intercept."
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley said he wasn't sure whether the Russian jet had intentionally made contact with the U.S. drone.
"Was it intentional or not? Don't know yet. We know the intercept was intentional. We know the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional," he said.
John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesperson, echoed that point on Thursday.
"At best, it's reckless flying," Kirby said. "At worst, it's reckless and incompetent."
Russia's Defense Ministry insists that its fighter jets did not attack or come into contact with the drone, alleging that the U.S. craft lost stability and control as a result of "quick maneuvering," before losing altitude and crashing into the Black Sea.
The drone crashed in deep waters
As for whether the U.S. will seek to recover the downed drone, Milley said on Wednesday that the aircraft crashed in waters that are 4,000 or 5,000 feet deep, making any recovery operation difficult. But he also said the Pentagon is looking at options — which would include its allies, he said, because the U.S. doesn't have "any naval surface vessels in the Black Sea at this time."
Russia says it is looking for the drone.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the U.S. military "will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows." Austin, who spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, by phone after the incident, said it's also important to maintain communications, adding, "that will help to prevent miscalculations going forward."
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
NPR's Greg Myre contributed to this story.