The US military has released video footage of a Black Sea incident during which a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-27 repeatedly harassed a US Air Force (USAF) General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper, culminating in a collision which resulted in the remotely piloted air vehicle’s loss.
Released on 16 March – two days after the incident – the declassified and edited video footage shows what Washington’s European Command (EUCOM) describes as an “unsafe/unprofessional intercept” of the unarmed MQ-9 by the Russian fighter “in international airspace over the Black Sea”.
Captured by the Reaper’s electro-optical camera, the footage shows a lone Su-27 approaching from behind the unmanned air vehicle (UAV), before its pilot executes a banking turn to starboard while dumping fuel. This appears to be an attempt to disrupt operation of the MQ-9’s rear-mounted engine.
“As the Su-27 passes over the top of the MQ-9, it also disrupts the video transmission,” EUCOM notes, adding: “The propeller of the US Air Force MQ-9 can be seen and remains undamaged.”
The Russian fighter is then shown making a second approach from behind the Reaper, this time from lower beneath the UAV. Again dumping fuel, “the Su-27 proceeds to pass even closer… [and] collides with the MQ-9,” EUCOM says.
The footage does not show the moment of impact, but in its last frame before the collision only part of the fighter’s starboard wing and horizontal stabiliser are in view due to its proximity. The Su-27’s pilot would have lost visual contact with the Reaper by this point, due to the Russian aircraft’s high angle of attack.
EUCOM notes that the MQ-9’s camera feed was lost for approximately 60s after the collision, but on its resumption “the propeller can be seen again and one of the props can be seen damaged”.
In fact, one of the propeller’s four blades has lost its end section, while another is bent out of position. The USAF opted to intentionally crash the Reaper into the Black Sea, presumably having deemed an attempted landing to be too dangerous.
The video footage shows that the Russian fighter is armed with an air-to-air weapons load which appears to comprise two R-73 and four R-27 missiles. It also clearly contradicts a claim by the Russian defence ministry that the USAF aircraft had been lost due to its own “sharp manoeuvring”, rather than interference from one its jets.
In separate footage which appeared on YouTube on 15 March, an Su-27 makes a separate, high-speed close pass of an MQ-9 while its pilot films the encounter, presumably from a mobile phone camera. The fighter is in close proximity to the UAV’s starboard wing as it passes at the same altitude. Public release of the collision event will serve to further strain relations between Moscow and Washington, already at a low due to Russia’s more than year-long war with neighbouring Ukraine.