Pentagon Chief Won’t Deny Ceding Airspace to Russia After Drone Confrontation
America’s top military official would not deny that the US is now limiting its intelligence-gathering operations in international airspace over the Black Sea following a confrontation this month in which two Russian fighter jets downed a US drone.
Speaking before Congress on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would say only that the US “will fly the paths we feel necessary to collect intelligence information” in response to questions about recent reports – based on anonymous officials – that the US is only conducting surveillance. operations in the southern half of the strategically critical seaway directly south of Ukraine.
The officials told CNN for a report posted last week that the Biden administration fears appearing “too provocative” since a Russian fighter jet repeatedly harassed and ultimately collided with an MQ-9 Reaper drone on March 14, forcing it to crash land in the Black Sea . CNN on Tuesday posted a report saying the new constraints “definitely limit” the US ability to understand Russian and other operations in and around the conflict zone in Ukraine.
Austin faced direct questions about the reports from Sen. Tom Cotton – specifically whether US aircraft had returned to the same airspace since the confrontation – but provided broad answers in response.
“We will fly the paths we feel necessary to collect intelligence information,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. When pressed, he added, “Senator, you may have heard me say immediately after this incident that I told my [Russian] counterpart that we’re going to fly the international skies and sail the seas as we wish.”
“That’s far from a ‘yes’ answer,” the Arkansas Republican shot back. “Have we adjusted our flight patterns? Have we moved out of that airspace?
“We will fly the paths that we feel necessary to collect intelligence information,” Austin replied.
He deferred any further answers to a closed-door classified session scheduled to take place after Tuesday’s open hearing, ostensibly about the administration’s $886 billion proposed defense budget.
“We continue to deter ourselves against our adversaries,” Cotton shot back.
The March 14 incident took place at roughly 7 am local time in international airspace, US European Command said in a statement at the time, specifying that two Russian Su-27 fighters conducted an “unsafe and unprofessional intercept” of the Air Force drone, including flying in front of it and dumping fuel on it several times before ultimately colliding.
Russia initially denied the incident took place at all and later said its fighter jet did not come into contact with the US drone while also defending its right to defend against what the Kremlin considered a provocative action.
“We know the intercept was intentional. We know the aggressive behavior was intentional,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the time.