Senator, former combat pilot says it’s not just Russian aggression that caused midair crash

The crash between a Russian fighter jet and a U.S. drone likely resulted from the pilot’s aggression and “incompetence,” according to former astronaut and Navy captain, Sen. Mark Kelly. 

“Look at the level of incompetence – I mean when we saw the flanker yesterday, which basically had a midair with the MQ-9 [drone], with a reaper … I spent 15 years in the astronaut office, I used to fly with Russian fighter pilots in the backseat of my plane,” Kelly, D-AZ., told Fox News chief political anchor and host of “Special Report with Brett Baier” during an interview Thursday. “The level of incompetence in the Russian pilots that I flew with was shocking to me.” 

Russia has denied that its plane crashed into the U.S. drone despite video evidence showing the plane make at least two fly-bys, including one in which it appeared to dump fuel on the drone before the feed abruptly cut off, and the drone crashed into the Black Sea. 

On Friday, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu reportedly presented the pilots responsible for crashing the drone with state awards, saying the pilots prevented the drone from “violating the boundaries of the temporary airspace regime established for the special military operation,” referring to the invasion of Ukraine. 


The ministry has insisted the plane at no point touched the drone or used onboard weapons and “returned safely to their home airfield.” 

U.S. Central Command reported that it has observed more “unprofessional” and “unsafe” behavior from the Russian pilots in Syria since March 1. 

U.S. European Command on Thursday released video of a Russian Su-27 fighter jet colliding with a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea, March 14. A screenshot shows a jet dumping fuel. (US European Command)

However, Kelly, who flew 39 combat missions during Operation: Desert Storm, said during his interview with Bret Baier that this kind of behavior does not surprise him based on his experience with Russian pilots. 

“I think he was trying to join up and rendezvous with the MQ-9, probably get some pictures of it, and he crashed into it,” Kelly argued. “What we see on the battlefield, over and over again, is this level of incompetence in all the ranks, including all the way up to the generals.” 


Rebekah Koffler, president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting and a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, told Fox News Digital that the Russian pilots’ aggression was “by design” and part of a culture of “high-risk tolerance and casualty tolerance” that covers the entire Russian military. 

“With Putin in charge, who is highly risk-tolerant, the Russian military, including the pilots, is even more aggressive,” she said. 

Democratic Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly.

Democratic Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

She argued that Kelly’s assessment and suggestion of incompetence made sense “based on U.S. standards,” but that Russians will “never fight like Americans” and instead focus on long-term strategy. 

“No one in the world comes even close to the tactical brilliance and superior training of the U.S. military,” she said. “The question is: Do superior tactics win wars? Afghanistan has demonstrated to us that they don’t.”


“Putin has been fighting a war of attrition in Ukraine that is land-based primarily because Putin has realized that he cannot secure a clear military victory in Ukraine,” she explained. “He is playing a long game to devastate the country. The Russians have more than three times more people than Ukrainians to sacrifice in this war.”

Critics have long debated why Russia did not rely heavily on its air force during the Ukraine invasion, but Koffler noted that the strength of Ukraine’s air defenses, including asymmetric use of anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger missiles, has made it too difficult. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, seen during the Navy Day Parade, on July 31, 2022, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Putin has arrived to Saint Petersburg to review Main Naval Parade of over 50 military ships on Russia's Navy Day.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, seen during the Navy Day Parade, on July 31, 2022, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Putin has arrived to Saint Petersburg to review Main Naval Parade of over 50 military ships on Russia’s Navy Day. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

“Whether they fight competently or incompetently, based on U.S. standards, the war will continue because Putin’s definition of victory is to keep the conflict going,” Koffler concluded. 

Kelly urged the U.S. to continue to support Ukraine and oppose Russia, and he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of killing women and children and committing war crimes.  


“We cannot allow Russia to beat Ukraine, to win this thing, because I can guarantee you, they will be looking to the next country,” Kelly said, stressing the fact that Putin has repeatedly discussed his desire to rebuild the Soviet Union. 

“For us to back off at this critical moment … to give [Putin] the space to be successful in Ukraine – that would be a colossal strategic mistake for our country.” 

Fox News Digital’s Timothy H.J. Nerozzi

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