March 16, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

5:34 p.m. ET, March 16, 2023

Officials: US now weighing benefits of drone intelligence against risks of escalation with Russia

From CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Oren Liebermann and Jim Sciutto

The US is conducting an assessment of its drone operations in the Black Sea region, weighing the costs and benefits of the flights after Russia forced one of the planes down earlier this week, several officials told CNN.

The US hasn’t stopped the flights completely while it completes the analysis — the military sent the same drone model, an MQ-9 Reaper, on a mission in roughly the same area over the Black Sea shortly after the collision occurred, US officials said. . That plane was intended to investigate the crash site and track Russians searching for the debris.

But the US military is “scrutinizing” the routes of the drones and assessing how to better reduce the risk of conflict with the Russian military, which regularly flies fighter jets in and out of Crimea, the officials said.

The Pentagon plans to analyze the overall costs and benefits of flying these missions, comparing the potential intelligence value of a given route to the risk of escalation with Russia.

Some in the US military worry that restricting drone routes will affect intelligence gathering related to the war in Ukraine, the senior military official said. But the US has possible alternatives for collecting the information, such as spy satellites.

The US is considering another drone flight over the Black Sea in the coming days, officials said, which would be in line with its normal flight schedule.

More background: The collision between the Russian Su-27 fighter jets and the US drone happened about 40-50 nautical miles southwest of Crimea, over the Black Sea in international airspace, the US Air Force said Thursday.

Russia accused the US of violating airspace they claimed to have created for their “special military operation” in Ukraine – a designation the US will not accept. The officials also said that Russia has not communicated such airspace restrictions.

New images released by the Pentagon on Thursday show the Russian fighter jets rapidly approaching the drone, pouring fuel on it and appearing to damage the drone’s propeller. The US was forced to shoot down the drone over the Black Sea after the impact effectively rendered it useless, officials said.

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