U.S., Russia defense chiefs speak after drone crash

STORY: The mid-air collision between a U.S. spy drone and a Russian fighter jet in international airspace prompted a rare direct call between military leaders in Washington and Moscow.

"I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Shoigu..."

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday said he'd spoken with Russia's defense minister about the incident, where a Russian Su-27 aircraft the day before intercepted, struck, and damaged the propeller of an American MQ-9 "Reaper" drone, forcing operators to crash it into the waters of the Black Sea.

"The United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows. And it is incumbent on Russia to operate its military aircraft in a safe and professional manner."

U.S. officials said two Russian jets first harried and dumped fuel on the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, before the collision.

U.S. General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was not yet clear whether the crash was intentional or accidental.

"Was it intentional or not? Don't know yet. We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional. We also know it was very unprofessional, and very unsafe. The actual contact of the fixed-wing Russian fighter with our UAV, the physical contact of those two, not sure yet. That remains to be seen."

Milley said the Pentagon had video evidence of the encounter, and would consider declassifying parts of it.

But Russia's Defense Ministry claimed the American drone was heading toward Russian-held territory, and said the there was no collision, asserting the MQ-9 crashed all on its own.

The downing of the drone marks the first incident since Russian forces invaded Ukraine over a year ago, a conflict that has seen a steadily increasing amount of U.S. weaponry - operated mostly by Ukrainians - clashing with Russian armaments.

"We've been waiting for this sort of thing to happen for some time. It's surprising it hasn't already happened."

Professor Michael Clarke is the former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"The United States has been flying drones in open airspace across the Black Sea, as they're perfectly legally entitled to do. The Russians have been trying to disrupt them and buzz them for months. It was only a matter of time."

Despite Russian denials, Clark told Reuters he believed the collision was real, if unintended.

"This almost certainly, I'm ninety-nine percent certain, was an accident. Pilot error. The Su-27 pilot who can deliberately and safely fly his plane into the propeller of a Reaper drone hasn't yet been born. [flash] So I'm sure it's an accident, and that pilot's very lucky."

Russia said it would try to recover the drone wreckage from the sea.

General Milley said the waters where the MQ-9 splashed down were four to five thousand feet deep, making any recovery attempt difficult.

He added that measures were taken before the crash to ensure no sensitive information could be gleaned from the wreckage.