Ng Han Guan

Defense Department Turns Tail and Runs After Russia’s Challenge Over the Black Sea

Two weeks ago, a pair of Russian Su-27 fighters based in Crimea, Occupied Ukraine, intercepted a USAF MQ-9 drone in international airspace over the Black Sea. The fighters made several increasingly aggressive passes at the drone, first dropping aviation fuel in what seemed to be an attempt to damage sensors on the MQ-9, and then one of the Russian fighters collided with the drone. The drone crashed into the Black Sea due to this sterling airmanship by the Russian pilot. See my coverage at Russian Fighter Intercepts US Drone over the Black Sea and The Black Sea Drone Incident Doesn’t Mean Escalation Unless the Russians Want It.

The Russian pilot was called to the Kremlin and presented with a medal by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

See my Ukraine Update, Putin’s War, Week 56. Putin Indicted for War Crimes, Xi Visits Moscow, and Sevastopol Attacked for a Third Time, for more details.

This was so out of character for the spinelessness of the Biden-Austin Defense Department that I did a double take. Then on Tuesday, CNN ran this story — US flying surveillance drones farther south over Black Sea after collision with Russian fighter jet, officials say.

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.

The new routes have already had a direct impact on mission accomplishment.

Flying drones at greater distances reduces the quality of intelligence they can gather, a US military official explained, noting that spy satellites can compensate to some degree but have shorter times over targets, again reducing effectiveness relative to surveillance drones
Asked about the new routes’ impact on intelligence gathering, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told CNN, “We’re not going to discuss missions, routes, or timing of operations. We’re also not going to discuss intelligence operations other than to say we maintain a robust ISR capability in the region and beyond.” A spokesperson for the National Security Council referred questions to the Pentagon.

For a while, it looked like NATO might take action to guarantee freedom of navigation. On Friday, when a US RC-135W Rivet Joint SIGINT reconnaissance aircraft flew a patrol over the Black Sea, it was accompanied by two Typhoon Eurofighters.

This seems to be a nuanced message that says, “go ahead and knock down our drones but we will protect manned aircraft.”

Anyone who thinks Russia will conclude, “oh, they want to de-escalate, let’s do the same,” shouldn’t be allowed out of the house without a leash and an escort; they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to make defense policy decisions.

Now that their tactics have been proven, it is inevitable that Russia will make another run at an MQ-9 sortie to drive them higher and farther away from Occupied Crimea. After this display of gutlessness, I can’t imagine the Russians not sending up fighters to harass manned aircraft.

If the impact of this action were limited to the Black Sea, it would be one thing. It would still be craven and ill-befitting a superpower, but it’s not. If a third-rate power like Russia can obstruct aerial traffic in unambiguously international airspace, what grounds remain for the US Navy’s freedom of navigation patrols inside the First Island Chain claimed by China? Especially when China makes no secret of its preparation for a war against Taiwan and has a record of in-your-face interference with the US Navy in international waters (BREAKING. China Says Screw You To Trump And Seizes US Vessel In South China Sea and China Promises To Eventually Return Stolen US Navy Submersible).

Weakness begets aggression. It always has and always will. The failure of Biden’s Defense Department to enforce our right to go wherever the hell we want to go, so long as it is in international airspace, is gong to have dire consequences in the Black Sea and other places.

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