‘Incidents Happen’: Gen. Milley Avoids Calling Russian Drone Collision An Act Of War

(Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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More investigation is needed into the incident when an aggressive Russian fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance drone operating over the Black Sea, causing it to crash, the Pentagon said Wednesday, coming short of declaring it an act of deliberate aggression.

Coming out of a meeting with allied defense ministries to discuss ongoing efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons and war equipment, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mike Milley said he wouldn’t go so far as to call the strike an act of war. The Pentagon has not determined whether Russia intended to damage the MQ-9 surveillance drone as it conducted routine operations over the Black Sea despite knowing the Russian fighter jets deliberately harassed the U.S. aircraft.

“Incidents happen,” Milley told reporters at the briefing.

Secretary of State Lloyd Austin confirmed that he spoke with Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu about the incident, underscoring the need to avoid escalation. (RELATED: Pentagon Seeks Ways To Buy Massive Amounts Of Munitions For Conflict With China Under Biden’s Defense Budget)

Two Russian Su-27 aircraft intercepted an MQ-9 surveillance drone flying through international airspace, repeatedly sloshing fuel over the system and ducking in front of it in an “unprofessional manner,” U.S. European Command (EUCOM) said in a statement. One of the Russian jets struck the drone’s propeller, forcing the U.S. to terminate it over international waters.

Top U.S. defense officials reasserted warnings against Russia’s “unprofessional and unsafe” conduct Wednesday. While it is unclear whether the Russian pilots meant to damage the aircraft, the intercept and dangerous maneuvering was clearly intentional, the chairman said.

Milley confirmed that the incident fits into a “pattern of behavior” from the Russian military in recent months.

Normally, Russian and U.S. forces operating in close proximity to one another take deliberate steps to remain physically separated and keep deconfliction lines open, Milley said. However, the Russian military has become more provocative, as the latest incident shows, and similar incidents have occurred between Russian and allied European forces, he added.

“It is incumbent upon Russia to operate his military aircraft in a safe and professional manner,” Austin said.

A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle drone performs a fly-over during the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2022.

A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle drone performs a fly-over during the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2022. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

So far, no effort has been made to recover  what remains of the drone, which likely broke up upon landing in deep waters of the Black Sea, Milley said. The U.S. does not operate any surface vessels in the Black Sea that could easily carry out recovery operations, although it does have “friends” in the region.

“We did take mitigating measures” to preclude any possibility that Russia could obtain the aircraft’s remains and discover any sensitive or classified equipment, Milley said.

Milley said he plans to speak with his Russian counterpart soon.

Russia has denied coming into direct contact with the U.S. drone and said it would attempt to retrieve the wreckage, according to CNN.

Ukraine’s defense minister said the incident represented Russia’s willingness to drag other parties into the war in Ukraine in a social media statement.

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