Express.co.uk has been told that the Russian jet which ‘attacked’ a US drone may well have been due to a human error. Incredible footage showed the US drone’s final moments before the jet dramatically crashed into it has sparked further tensions between Moscow and Washington. In a video released by the Pentagon, Russia sprays fuel over the $32m (£26m) Reaper drone, sending it spiralling into the depths of the Black Sea, close to the Ukrainian-held Snake Island.
General Erik Kurilla, in charge of Washington’s Central Command, said Russia had been “provocative” towards the US in recent weeks, particular its bases in Syria.
He added: “What we are seeing is an increase recently in the unprofessional and unsafe behaviour of the Russian air force in the region… we have seen a significant spike since about March 1.”
The footage shows the Russian Su-27 Flanker jet making two close passes of the uncrewed MQ-9 Reaper, before soaking it in fuel. As the Russia-based jet passes again, the camera captures the body of the Reaper, which is now damaged.
It plummets moments after into the Black Sea, where Russian officials now hope to retrieve it and any valuable data it holds.
But air safety investigator, and former US government whistleblower, Alan Diehl is unsure if the incident was actually a planned attack on a Washington machine.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, Dr Diehl noted how the drone’s camera footage “indicates the fighter pilot is forced to fly at a very nose-high pitch attitude because of the drone’s slow speed”. This, he believes, means the Russian pilot is “probably struggling just to maintain control over his own aircraft”.
He continued: “This in-turn hampers his view of the MQ-9 as he gets close because of his jet’s nose structure.
“I suspect this loss of visual contact, combined with the difficulties manoeuvring at altitude when slow, as well as human reaction time limitations, resulted in the collision.”
The incident has fueled fury from inside Washington as to what action can now be directed at Russia for its supposed show of aggression.
They believe the footage “absolutely confirms” the collision and fuel being purposefully dumped, although others say the intention of downing the Reaper was unclear.
The footage was released by Washington with the caption: “Two Russian Su-27 aircraft conducted an unsafe and unprofessional intercept with a US Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unmanned MQ-9 aircraft operating within international airspace over the Black Sea on 14 March 2023.
“Russian Su-27s dumped fuel upon and struck the propeller of the MQ-9, causing US forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters.”
Justin Bronk, an aviation analyst from the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), argued the scenario was “unprofessional”, backing up US claims that “the Russian pilot involved in the collision was flying recklessly and accidentally collided with the MQ-9”.
But Dr Diehl is unsure. “Many experts believe higher authorities ordered this attack on the MQ-9,” he said. “However, it is possible that the Su-27 pilots were only attempting to dump fuel on the drone rather than intentionally collide with it.”
The author added: “Because of reported budgetary restrictions limiting flight time, Russian pilots have become less proficient. Furthermore, manoeuvring at an altitude around a very slow-moving target is not something fighter pilots practice routinely.
“Therefore, the actual collision may have been unintended. However, ordering such manoeuvres by higher authorities would be against international aviation procedures, and dangerous, especially for the Russian airmen order to do this.”
Tensions boiled over following Tuesday’s incident, and less than 24 hours later, Anatoly Antonov, Russia‘s ambassador to the US, was hauled in for discussion.
He lambasted the US, saying Moscow was “concerned about the unacceptable activity of the US military in the immediate vicinity of our borders”.
Russia is continuing its search to locate the downed drone, despite officials saying there was no data left on it.
General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chief of Staff, said the US would “work through recovery operations” as it attempted to find the drone. But he noted, “it probably broke up”.
In a Pentagon briefing, he added: “There’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly.
“As far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence, etc … we would take – and we did take – mitigating measures. So we’re quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value.”