The US is flying surveillance drones farther south above the Black Sea after a Russian jet collided with a US drone last week, according to two US officials.
The drone flights have remained in international airspace, but since the collision between one of the Russian jets and the MQ-9 Reaper drone last Tuesday, the US has moved its drone flights farther away from airspace surrounding the Crimean peninsula and eastern portions of the Black Sea.
One of the officials said the routes are part of an effort “to avoid being too provocative,” as the Biden administration remains careful to avoid an incident that could potentially escalate into a direct conflict between US and Russian forces.
The official said the drone flights would continue this way “for the time being,” but added there is already “an appetite” to return to the routes closer to Russian-held territory. The officials also said Russia may try to unilaterally declare a broader closure of airspace around southern and eastern Ukraine in an attempt to force US drone flights farther out.
On Tuesday, FlightRadar24, a commercial flight tracking website, showed a US RQ-4 Global Hawk remaining in the southern and southwestern portions of the Black Sea at an altitude of approximately 52,000 feet.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday the US was continuing to operate drones over the Black Sea, “flying in international airspace in accordance with international law.” But he declined to say whether the US had changed its routes or mission profiles following last week’s encounter between a US spy drone and two Russian fighter jets.
“I’m not going to, for operational security reasons, not going to get into the specifics of routes, missions, timelines, things like that,” Ryder said at a press briefing.
Last week, two Russian Sukhoi SU-27 fighter jets harassed a US MQ-9 Reaper drone operating in international airspace over the Black Sea. One of the jets then collided with the surveillance drone, damaging its propeller and forcing it down.
Following the incident, CNN reported that the US was conducting an assessment of drone flights over the Black Sea to include potential routes, altitudes, risks and more. The purpose of the assessment was to evaluate the intelligence gathered from the missions against the risk of escalation with Russia.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said after the incident the US would “continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.” Even as the US carried out the assessment, another MQ-9 Reaper drone flew over the Black Sea in approximately the same area as the downed flight to survey the crash site, officials said.
Several days later, a US RQ-4 Global Hawk flew above southern portions of the Black Sea, venturing into the eastern regions of the waterway near Russian territory, according to FlightRadar24.