On March 14, two Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jets were attempting to harass an unmanned American MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea, when one of them — seemingly accidentally — crashed right into the drone’s rear propeller. In the days that followed, memes and internet jokes about just how poorly trained Russian fighter pilots are flooded social media, spurred initially by a rather professional burn delivered by Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder in a press conference held that same day.
“This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional,” the general said.
It’s commonly said that Russian fighter pilots are not as well trained as their Western counterparts, particularly those from the United States. But after conspiracy theories began to surface on social media about the Russian pilot colliding with the MQ-9 on purpose so Russian vessels in the Black Sea could recover it, the question of pilot competency within the Russian armed forces became more important.
Russian forces have almost certainly already gotten their hands on a number of downed MQ-9 Reapers over the drone’s two-plus decades of service. MQ-9s have been shot down or crashed due to other issues, over Syria, where Russian forces operate, and over Yemen, and Libya on multiple occasions. So, dredging a broken Reaper up from the bottom of the Black Sea may not be the intelligence windfall many have made it out to be.
But even if the intelligence value of downing the Reaper was likely minimal, preventing it from continuing to gather intelligence about the conflict in Ukraine could (arguably) be motive enough for the Russian pilots to be given the order to engage the drone in a way that allowed for plausible deniability — causing a crash seemingly by accident to avoid American retaliation. Of course, in doing so, Russian leaders would be willingly risking not only a $37 million Su-27 in the midst of an ongoing war, but a valuable pilot as well. That’s a big risk to take for a dated drone.