Biden’s stunning weakness in face of Russia’s drone aggression

Vladimir Putin
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laughs as he and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, unseen, meet with their supporters in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.Russia’s main independent election watchdog says prosecutors have opened a probe against the group suspecting it of breaking election laws just three days before the parliamentary vote.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool) Alexander Zemlianichenko/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Biden’s stunning weakness in face of Russia’s drone aggression

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On March 14, a Russian fighter jet crashed into a U.S. Reaper MQ-9 drone operating over the Black Sea, destroying it. That drone cost American taxpayers roughly $18 million to $32 million and was deployed in international airspace to monitor Russian forces occupying Ukraine. Russia had no legitimate excuse for downing the drone and offered no apology for doing so. On the contrary, Moscow awarded medals to the pilots involved. Unfortunately, President Joe Biden has responded with unequivocal weakness to this aggression.

As CNN has reported, the United States has been flying drones further south since the March 14 incident. One U.S. official told CNN that this shift is in order “to avoid being too provocative.” Under questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin suggested that the redeployment south was not prohibitive to U.S. intelligence collection efforts.

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It’s a laughable claim.

The Reaper drone’s intelligence collection effort centers on radar and imagery systems. The collection utility of those systems is dependable on their physical proximity to a target. By moving the drones further south over the Black Sea, the U.S. is weakening its means of gathering intelligence. Binoculars are still useful, for example, but less useful at greater distances. In essence, the U.S. has allowed Russia to score a tactical success by virtue of its aggression in international airspace.

Yet there’s more at stake here than U.S. intelligence-gathering interests.

As I noted when the drone was first shot down, “the Biden administration cannot allow Russia to hold either a perceived or effective veto over U.S. military operations in international airspace. Doing so would undercut the central contention of U.S. operations in relation to the Taiwan Strait and the near entirety of the South China Sea, which China illegitimately claims as its own.”

The obvious U.S. response to Russia’s action would have been to warn against future shootdowns and maintain the drone flights on their existing flight paths. If Russia then shot down another drone, the U.S. could send up fighter jets to escort future drone flights.

Instead, the U.S. is sending Russia, China, and every other adversary the message that it can be corralled into retreat by acts of distinct escalation. This is a particularly unwise course of action to take against President Vladimir Putin, who places great importance on his ability to manipulate fears over escalation to his own advantage. It makes his nuclear brinkmanship more likely, not less likely.

The Russians are not stupid. Facing American resolve and, if necessary, superior American firepower, they will allow the drones to operate as they have been doing. Biden’s present strategy reeks only of a very obvious and unproductive weakness.

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