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A Russian Jet Hit an American Drone. It Probably Won’t Be the Last Time.

Frequent encounters between NATO and Russian military aircraft are raising the odds of an accident—or an “accident.”
March 16, 2023
A Russian Jet Hit an American Drone. It Probably Won’t Be the Last Time.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley listens during a press conference at the Pentagon on March 15, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia. Gen. Milley and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin discussed various topics including the downing of an American MQ-9 Reaper drone in the Black Sea by Russian fighter jets. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

[Editor’s note, March 16, 2023, 8:15 a.m.: The Department of Defense has released video of the Russian jet colliding with the American drone over the Black Sea.

The Russian government had denied that the aircraft made contact.]

Two days ago, a Russian fighter jet brought down an American long-range reconnaissance drone while both were operating in international airspace over the Black Sea. An event such as this involving the actual destruction of a Russian or NATO aircraft has not happened in decades. But given the frequency with which encounters between aircraft from both sides take place and the tendency of Russian pilots to act irresponsibly, it is nothing short of a miracle that such dangerous incidents have not resulted in loss of life. While these incidents are always (or almost always) explainable as accidents, they nonetheless present the potential for escalation to armed conflict between two nuclear-armed states in an already confrontational posture.

Our research found that between 2013 and 2021, almost three thousand military contacts—planes or ships shadowing each other—took place between Russia and NATO, from the North Atlantic and Arctic to the West Coast of the United States. Each side accounted for about half of these intercepts. These encounters were most frequent in areas where military forces were most highly concentrated, such as the Baltic Sea area, or in regions where hostilities were actually underway, like the Black Sea.

These types of events happen regularly. Within the past month, U.S. Air Force jets twice intercepted Russian aircraft near Alaska, Norwegian Air Force fighters have done the same thing twice in airspace off the Norwegian coast, Dutch aircraft escorted Russian jets away from NATO airspace near Poland, and, just two days ago, British and German fighters investigated a Russian aircraft near Estonia.

Why do these incidents occur? Both Russia and NATO are determined to safeguard their territory and maintain a vigilant watch over areas close to home. Aircraft and warships approaching sovereign airspace and waters are tracked carefully by radar and other means and, if the approach is judged to be a potential threat, interceptions are ordered. Such responses send the message that the country is capable of defending its territory and determined to do so.

After the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO quickly moved to shore up its air defenses in its eastern member states by establishing quick reaction alert bases, first in the Baltic countries and later in Romania and Bulgaria. With these assets in place, air intercepts could be conducted more frequently. Together with an expansion of military exercises in eastern Europe, the overall tempo of activity increased significantly.

Both sides conduct air and naval patrols to gather intelligence and probe the defensive capabilities of the respective parties, but these activities also demonstrate the capability to mount an attack on a potential adversary. Show-of-force missions by long-range bombers, although couched in terms of assuring allies of a commitment to collective defense, are also intended as geopolitical signaling.

So the combination of defensive and offensive demonstrations generates the large number of contacts occurring each year. But the manner in which such events actually play out is a major factor in assessing the escalation risk involved. Generally, pilots maintain a safe distances apart and don’t maneuver in such a way as to make a collision more likely. Russian pilots, acting on orders to be aggressive or on account of incompetence, frequently violate these norms.

In the case at hand, it appears that after the Russian fighter pilots attempted to dump fuel on the American drone, one approached from the rear, miscalculated the closing speed, and struck the aircraft, disabling its propeller (located at the back of the drone) and causing it to be guided to a water landing. In any number of other encounters, Russian fighters have approached U.S./NATO aircraft in an unsafe manner, posing very real threats of collision.

Worse, in October 2022, a manned British Royal Air Force intelligence aircraft was approached by Russian fighters over the Black Sea, during which encounter one of the Russian aircraft released a missile, apparently inadvertently, leading the UK’s Minster of Defense to state that the Russians are “not beyond making the wrong calculation or indeed deciding that the rules don’t apply to them.” Following that event, the RAF began escorting its intelligence flights with fighters.

The current state of affairs is, therefore, more problematic than ever, especially with large-scale warfare in progress as Ukraine fights to stave off the massive Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022. In that connection, Russia’s air force has upped its operational tempo at the same time that NATO has expanded its airborne intelligence flights, and the contact zone between the parties has become much more active. As Osprey Flight Solutions, an aviation consultancy, has demonstrated, this heightened state of tension has repercussions even for civil aviation, with GPS jamming and the possibility of misidentification now widespread.

In this environment, the risk of a more serious incident occurring has grown significantly. Both the Russian and U.S. responses have been, so far, uncompromising. Moscow is reiterating longstanding complaints about intelligence flights near its borders, essentially threatening to do more of the same. Adding fuel to the fire, Russia has also stated that it intends to recover the drone. The U.S., meanwhile, stresses that international airspace is open and that it intends to continue operations near Ukraine. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that “the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”

Although Secretary Austin and his Russian counterpart, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, spoke about the incident, it will take more than a phone call to preclude such events happening again. Rather, sustained discussions about the deconfliction of military operations should be undertaken despite the current recalcitrant mood. To allow events to occur unbounded by protocols is a recipe for disaster.

Ralph Clem and Ray Finch

Ralph Clem is a retired Air Force Reserve major general with a career in intelligence. He is currently a senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public affairs at Florida International University. Ray Finch is a retired Army field artillery officer and is currently an analyst on Russian military affairs at the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office.