Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman says he is “concerned” Russia could recover and “exploit” the U.S. drone that crashed into the Black Sea on Tuesday.
Vindman, a Ukrainian-born former official for ex-President Donald Trump whose whistleblower testimony was instrumental in Trump’s first impeachment, said on Twitter that Russia may be “best positioned” to recover the MQ-9 “Reaper” drone and exploit its technology.
The U.S. Air Force said two “reckless” Russian fighter jet pilots forced the drone down after dumping fuel on it and striking its propeller early Tuesday morning. Russia has claimed that the drone downed itself following “sharp maneuvering.”
Vindman said that while the incident was “likely” caused by pilot error on behalf of the Russians, the U.S. will have to “deal with” the fallout of Russia bringing down the $32 million aircraft and potentially stealing its technology.
“This is likely an accident … pilot error,” Vindman tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “But the US has to deal with the reality that Russia forced down an expensive & capable drone.”
“[Russia] will interpret a lack of response as an invite for more bad behavior,” he added. “I’m concerned that [Russia] is best positioned to recover & exploit the tech.”
The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) said in a release on Tuesday that the drone was downed following an “unsafe and unprofessional intercept” by two Russian Su-27 fighter jets.
National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told reporters that the incident would not “deter or dissuade” the U.S. from flying similar missions over the Black Sea.
However, it remained unclear whether the U.S. had started any efforts to recover the aircraft at the time of publication.
Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder declined to provide details on any recovery efforts in a briefing earlier on Tuesday, while also saying that “Russia does not have the drone.”
The BBC reported that unconfirmed audio recordings circulating online suggested that a Russian effort to recover the $32 million U.S. aircraft was underway.
Although the U.S. could take steps to limit potential damage caused by a Russian recovery, such as remotely wiping data or attempting to destroy the drone, the military recovering the aircraft itself could prove more difficult.
U.S. warships have been blocked from entering the Black Sea since Turkey shut down the Bosphorus Strait on February 28, 2022—four days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
A U.S. recovery using a commercial ship that is not subject to the same restrictions may be possible, according to Sal Mercogliano, merchant mariner and chair of Campbell University’s Department of History, Criminal Justice and Politics.
“What I assume they’ll do is charter something and take it to the Black Sea or charter something in the Black Sea,” Mercogliano told United States Naval Institute News. “As long as it’s non-military, they don’t seem to have any issues.”
The Pentagon and U.S. Air Forces Europe declined comment on recovery efforts when contacted via email by Newsweek.
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