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Collision with a Russian or Chinese aircraft could be what leads to conflict, top US Marine warns

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An over-aggressive Chinese or Russian pilot getting so close to a U.S. aircraft that they cause an accidental collision is just the sort of thing that could spiral into conflict, according to the head of the U.S. Marines.

Gen. David Berger, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, sounded his warning on Tuesday, hours after a Russian Su-27 downed an MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea.

American officials accused two Russian jets of making an ‘unsafe and unprofessional intercept’ and have summoned Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S. for a dressing down. 

Berger was asked about the episode during an event at the National Press Club in Washington. 

‘This is probably my biggest worry,’ he said. ‘Both there and in the Pacific … an aggressive Russia or China pilot or vessel captain or something gets too close,  doesn’t realise where they are, causes a collision. 

General David Berger, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said his biggest worry was an accidental clash between superpowers in the early hours of the morning

General David Berger, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said his biggest worry was an accidental clash between superpowers in the early hours of the morning

He delivered his warning after American officials said an MQ-9 drone was forced out of the sky above the Black Sea at about 2am after being hit by a Russian fighter jet

He delivered his warning after American officials said an MQ-9 drone was forced out of the sky above the Black Sea at about 2am after being hit by a Russian fighter jet

‘And it’s two in the morning and we’re trying to unpack this as fast as we can. I really worry about that.’

The drone was hit shortly after 2am eastern time, according to defense officials

The Pentagon said two Russian fighters harassed the drone by dumping fuel on it and flying in front of it, before one Su-27 clipped the propeller of the $32 million drone, forcing its operators to down it over the Black Sea in a total loss of the unmanned aircraft. 

‘This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,’ said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder in a press briefing.

He declined to say whether the drone was armed.  

Russia’s Defense Ministry denied colliding with the US drone, saying the American aircraft went into ‘uncontrolled flight’ due to ‘sharp maneuvering’.  

The incident happened in international airspace, but not far from the battles raging on the front lines of the war in Ukraine, amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of the country.

With communications between Washington and both Beijing and Moscow at low points, there has long been a fear that an accidental confrontation or misjudgement could quickly spiral out of control. 

'This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,' said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder (above)

‘This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,’ said Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder (above) 

A Russian fighter jet collided with an American MQ-9 Reaper drone (like the one seen above) over the Black Sea, the US military confirmed today

A Russian fighter jet collided with an American MQ-9 Reaper drone (like the one seen above) over the Black Sea, the US military confirmed today

Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets (like the one seen above) conducted an 'unsafe and unprofessional intercept' in international airspace, the US said

Two Russian Su-27 fighter jets (like the one seen above) conducted an ‘unsafe and unprofessional intercept’ in international airspace, the US said

An expert on Russian interception flights concluded this was 'a close pass that went bad'

An expert on Russian interception flights concluded this was ‘a close pass that went bad’

‘In other words, either intentionally or unintentionally things bumping into each other, causing a collision and then two great nations, powerful nations, trying to sort it out at two in the morning…’ continued Berger.

‘Even more challenging because right now on our side on the let’s say the [People’s Republic of China] … normally we would have communications with … their military. 

‘It doesn’t exist right now. They won’t communicate with us. 

‘So the normal sort of many channels that you have to kind of quickly defuse something. They’re gone.’ 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a similar warning. 

‘I want to tell Mr. Putin, stop this behavior before you are the reason for an unintended escalation,” he said in remarks opening the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

‘We have seen this behavior from the Russian military before, and it will not deter the U.S. from conduction operations over the Black Sea.’

Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at @RANDCorporation, said Russia had a history of using warplanes to make increasingly aggressive moves to deter to rival aircraft, eventually resorting to ‘unsafe’ maneuvers. 

‘We’ve done research on Russian coercive signaling, which today’s MQ-9/SU-27 incident was,’ she tweeted. ‘It’s a close pass that went bad.’

American officials offered no further details about the location of the drone, other than that it was in international air space over the Black Sea, or its mission or armaments

American officials offered no further details about the location of the drone, other than that it was in international air space over the Black Sea, or its mission or armaments

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov (above) has been summoned by the State Department to discuss the incident

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov (above) has been summoned by the State Department to discuss the incident

President Joe Biden has been briefed on the incident, said White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby, who slammed Russia’s actions as reckless and dangerous. 

State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that the Russian ambassador Antonov had been summoned to discuss the incident. 

Kirby, the White House spokesman, said that the State Department ‘will be speaking directly with their Russian counterparts, and expressing our concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional intercept.’ 

‘If the message is that they want to deter or dissuade us from flying, operating in international airspace over the Black Sea, then that message will fail,’ said Kirby.

‘We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year … and we’re going to continue to do that,’ he said.

‘We don’t need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There’s no requirement to do that nor do we do it,’ Kirby added.

While the United States is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, it has routinely been flying surveillance aircraft in and around the area. 

‘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,’ said US Air Force General James Hecker, who oversees the US Air Force in the region. 

‘In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash,’ added Hecker.

The general went on to vow that ‘US and Allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely.’

The US military said the incident ‘demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.’ 

European Command said in a statement the incident ‘follows a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots’ over international airspace, including the Black Sea. 

‘These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew are dangerous and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation,’ the statement added.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed the US drone was flying toward its airspace with its transponder turned off, and the Russian fighters were dispatched to investigate.

‘Russian fighters did not use airborne weapons and did not come into contact with the American drone,’ the ministry said in a statement.

‘Due to sharp maneuvering, the American drone went into uncontrolled flight with a loss of altitude and collided with the water surface,’ the statement added.

Putin on Tuesday visited the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant in Buryatia, Russia, where he reaffirmed his view that Russia's very existence as a state was at stake in the war

Putin on Tuesday visited the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant in Buryatia, Russia, where he reaffirmed his view that Russia’s very existence as a state was at stake in the war

Russian Sukhoi SU-27 

Type: Fighter jet

Crew: One

Top speed: 1,550mph

Length: 72ft

Wing span: 48ft

Range: 2,193 miles

Cost: $30million 

Armament: 30mm cannon air-to-air/land missiles, rockets and bombs 

 

 

US MQ-9 Reaper 

Type: Surveillance drone

Remote crew: Two

Top speed: 300mph

Length: 36ft

Wing span: 66ft

Range: 1,150 miles

Cost: $32million 

Armament: AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II, and GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions

The mid-air collision between a US-made MQ-9 Reaper and a Russian Su-27 fighter jet occurred at 7.03am CET (2.03am ET) on Tuesday.

Analysts suggested the Russians may have been trying to down the much smaller unmanned aircraft in such a way that would allow them to recover its data.

In Brussels, NATO’s senior military commander, General Christopher Cavoli, informed allies about the incident, an alliance official said.

It occurred as Russian troops pushed forward in waves along the frontline in eastern Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his view that Russia’s very existence as a state was at stake in the war.

In the eastern Donbas region, Russia and Ukraine are locked in the bloodiest infantry battle in Europe since World War Two after Moscow launched a winter offensive.

Putin has framed Moscow’s year-long invasion of Ukraine as a defensive pushback against what he sees as a hostile West bent on expanding into territories historically ruled by Russia.

‘So for us this is not a geopolitical task, but a task of the survival of Russian statehood, creating conditions for the future development of the country and our children,’ Putin said during a visit to an aviation factory in Buryatia, some 2,750 miles east of Moscow.

Putin accuses the West of using Ukraine as a tool to inflict ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia. 

Kyiv and its Western allies say Moscow is waging an unprovoked war of conquest that has destroyed Ukrainian cities, killed thousands of people and forced millions more to flee their homes.

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