Kirby, who was an admiral in the Navy, called the award “insulting” and “ludicrous.” He said the country must have a “different definition” of bravery.
“I don’t know of another military in the world, another air force in the world that would award a pilot for smashing into a drone. If that’s bravery, then I guess they’ve got a different definition of it. It’s ludicrous. It’s insulting,” Kirby said Wednesday.
“In the Navy I grew up in, you don’t want to hit anything. Hitting anything’s bad for you. I have no clue why they would give a bravery award to a pilot who was, at worst, maliciously putting himself and U.S. property at great risk and, at best, just an idiot.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu awarded the pilots the Orders of Courage award on Wednesday.
The award announcement comes after U.S. officials announced that a Russian fighter jet struck a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone last week. The jet damaged the drone’s propeller and caused it to crash into the Black Sea.
The drone is not considered recoverable because it sank too deep, according to an Air Force spokesperson. However, all sensitive data from the drone, including U.S. intelligence, were wiped.
Russia touted the strike, saying it prevented a U.S. aircraft from flying into Russian airspace. U.S. officials have maintained that the unmanned drone was flying in international airspace and fell into international waters.
The Pentagon released footage of the crash last week taken by a camera on the U.S. aircraft.
In the video, a Russian Su-27 approached the rear of the drone and began to release fuel as it passed. On the second pass, as the Russian jet quickly approached, the video feed cut out for about 60 seconds following impact. When the camera resumed its video feed, the propeller appeared to be damaged.
Kirby said while the United States may never know what the intent of the pilots was, the incident was “intentional harassment” and “intentionally aggressive.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the move was just the latest in a series of risky actions by Russia, but it was the first time a Russian pilot had crashed into a U.S. drone.