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Could NATO and Russia Go to War over Downed Drone?

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, armed with four GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition, parks on a flightline before a mission on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan Feb. 22, 2018. The 62nd ERS provides close air support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Paul Labbe)

This morning, Russian fighter jets forced a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle to crash land in international waters. 

Despite the provocative action on the part of the Russian military, the incident is unlikely to cause an escalation in the Ukraine conflict and pull the U.S., and subsequently NATO, in.

Drone Down

The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) announced today that a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet flew aggressively around a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial system and eventually forced it to crash in the Black Sea. 

The U.S. unmanned aircraft was flying over international space and conducting an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission close to Ukraine when two Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jets appeared. 

The Russian aircraft went on to harass the U.S. drone by dumping fuel on it and flying extremely close in an attempt to force it to change course. During one of these risky maneuvers, one of the Russian fighter jets collided with the MQ-9 Reaper. 

“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” U.S. Air Force Gen. James B. Hecker, the commanding general of the U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in a press release.

Heckler indicated that the dangerous flying on the part of the Russians almost cost them a fighter jet as the Su-27 Flanker that collided with MQ-9 Reaper was also damaged.   

“Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner. This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” EUCOM said in a statement.

According to EUCOM, Russian pilots have been acting aggressively against NATO manned and unmanned aircraft for a while now. 

Back in the fall, a Russian fighter jet had launched a missile against a British spy plane but without finding its target. Since then, British fighter jets have been accompanying any non-armed aircraft flying missions around Ukraine. 

“[The incident] follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots while interacting w/ U.S. & Allied aircraft over international airspace, including over the Black Sea. These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous & could lead to miscalculation & unintended escalation.”

Ukraine Escalation is Unlikely 

The likelihood of escalation over the incident is extremely small. Indeed, it wouldn’t benefit any of the parties to escalate right now. 

On the Russian side, the last thing the Kremlin wants right now is for NATO to enter the war—an attack on the U.S. military, such as this incident, would potentially trigger NATO’s Article 5 and bring the whole transatlantic alliance into the conflict.

Russia is struggling to defeat the Ukrainian military and would be routed in a conventional war with NATO. 

On the U.S. side, there is no possibility that it would go to war with Russia over a drone.

There is no desire for such a conflict. Indeed, the U.S. continues to weaken one of its near-peer adversaries through Ukraine, and there is little need to engage itself.  

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Expert Biography: 

A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business InsiderSandboxx, and SOFREP.

1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.