US, Russia on the hunt for downed drone
Both the U.S. and Russia have signaled an interest in hunting for an advanced, $32 million drone downed over the Black Sea on Tuesday, but the search is complicated by the fact the unmanned aerial aircraft plunged into deep water near Crimea.
The U.S. will also face serious limitations of what American crews could achieve in a search area close to Russian territory.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) declined to speak on the specifics but said the recovery remains a “priority.”
“We take the protection and recovery of this aircraft very seriously, but the aircraft has not been recovered at this time,” a USAFE spokesperson said in a statement.
Speaking to CNN on Wednesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. was looking into how it might retrieve the MQ-9 Reaper drone but admitted it may not be recovered after it fell into “very deep water.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at a press briefing later Wednesday that the drone is in waters as deep as 5,000 feet.
“Any recovery operation is very difficult at that depth by anyone,” he told reporters.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (Associated Press/Achmad Ibrahim)
Another roadblock is the greater than yearlong absence of any U.S. ships in the Black Sea, but Milley said Washington does “have a lot of allies and friends in the area that will work through recovery operations.” U.S. forces are stationed at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania, which borders the Black Sea.
Meanwhile, Russia is appearing more confident in pulling the Reaper from the depths.
Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said Moscow has the ability to recover the drone, according to The Associated Press. And Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, told Russian media they planned to search for the downed aircraft.
“I don’t know if we can recover them or not, but we will certainly have to do that, and we will deal with it,” Patrushev said, per the AP.
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, said both Russia and the U.S. have the capabilities to retrieve objects that have fallen into deep water. But any American recovery operations could raise the risk of another escalation, Biddle added.
“The likelihood you could end up accidentally triggering something that could escalate is a more important stake than the equipment the Russians might find,” he said.
The Reaper drone was flying over the Black Sea in international airspace when it was flanked by two Russian jets, which harassed it for more than 30 minutes. One Russian jet dumped fuel on it and one Russian jet damaged the propellor of the drone, forcing it down Tuesday morning local time, according to U.S. European Command.
Russia maintains the drone maneuvered sharply and crashed on its own and said the unmanned aircraft acted provocatively by approaching Russian territory.
Russia will have an easier time searching for the aircraft because it appears to have fallen into the waters off the west coast of Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014. Russia maintains naval bases and airfields on the Crimean Peninsula.
Turkey, a NATO ally considered the friendliest to Moscow, controls the only access point from the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea. Under a protocol of the Montreux Convention, Turkish officials can limit naval ships from entering — a power it has exercised after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A successful Russian recovery could pose serious intelligence concerns for Washington, but U.S. officials said they took steps to minimize sensitive intelligence collection from Russia should they find the drone first and added it would likely have limited value.
“It probably broke up, there’s probably not a lot to recover, frankly, as far as the loss of anything of sensitive intelligence,” Milley said Wednesday. “We did take mitigating measures so we are quite confident that whatever was of value is no longer of value.”
Washington has provided hundreds of small, tactical Switchblade drones to Ukraine, some of which have been recovered by Russian forces on the battlefield.
But the Pentagon has never supplied Kyiv with Reaper drones, which are more sophisticated, can fly further and are much larger, with a wingspan of 66 feet.
The advanced drones can linger over targets for 24 hours and are capable of carrying munitions such as laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
Pentagon officials would not say whether the drone was armed at the time it crashed.
The U.S. military has flown aircraft over the Black Sea since before the war, but the downed MQ-9 is the first time Russian warplanes have damaged a U.S. aircraft in that timeframe. It marks a prime opportunity for Moscow to swoop in and obtain confidential technology, if any remains. The drone could also be an opportunity for Russia to promote propaganda of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine or reinforce further action in the Black Sea.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu talked with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday, warning that Moscow views the flights around Crimea as provocative and will continue to respond to future provocations, according to a readout from the Russian Defense Ministry on Telegram.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow with the CFR, said the downed Reaper would “provide insights into American technology.”
“The Russians would like to get their hands on it,” he said.
Biddle, from Columbia University and CFR, said that although U.S. technology is more advanced, many countries operate similar drones.
The value of the Reaper’s intelligence for Russia is limited compared to the risk of an escalation, he argued.
“This whole episode is about dangerous behavior that created an incident of escalating a war,” Biddle said. “I don’t know that the stakes in keeping the Russians from getting parts of a drone are sufficient to warrant risking the war by operating naval forces cheek-to-jowl with the Russians.”
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