A Russian fighter jet flew "dangerously close" to a U.S. hunter-killer drone over Syria on Sunday and released a flare causing severe damage to the drone's propeller, the U.S. Air Force said Tuesday.
At 12.23 a.m. ET Sunday the Russian plane came within a few feet of the MQ-9 Reaper drone, which was on a "defeat-ISIS" mission, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the commander of the Ninth Air Force and the Combined Forces Air Component for U.S. Central Command.
“The Russian fighter’s blatant disregard for flight safety detracts from our mission to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group.
“We call upon the Russian forces in Syria to put an immediate end to this reckless, unprovoked, and unprofessional behavior.”
A Defense Department spokesperson said there was no justification for Russia’s actions targeting American drones over Syria.
“The Russians know where we operate. There’s no excuse for how their forces continue to harass our MQ-9s after years of U.S. operations in the area,” spokesperson Sabrina Singh told reporters in a teleconference Tuesday.
The Air Force released video that it said showed the Russian jet flying close to the drone and releasing a flare.
The crew operating the MQ-9 drone was able to fly it to its home base, he added. The drone has a wingspan of 66 feet and costs $56.5 million at 2011 prices, according to the Air Force website. It can carry Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs.
In March, Grynkewich told NBC News that armed Russian jets were flying over U.S. positions in Syria nearly every day.
The Russian flights near U.S. drones in Syria follow attacks by Iranian-backed forces against U.S. military troops in Iraq and Syria this year. In March, the U.S. military carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria against Iranian-aligned groups that Washington accused of staging a drone attack that killed an American contractor.
Iran and Russia have forged an increasingly close military partnership in recent months, with Tehran providing Russia with Iranian-made drones for its war in Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.