An American F-15E shot down a suspected pro-Syrian government drone in southeastern Syria today after it “dropped one of several weapons it was carrying near a position occupied by Coalition personnel who are training and advising partner ground forces in the fight against ISIS”, according to the CENTCOM news release.
The drone was not identified but was described as being similar in size to the American made MQ-1 Predator. Since 2014, the Iranian Shaeed 129 UAV has been operating over Syria and is very similar in size to the Predator. With Iran’s steadily growing involvement in the Syrian conflict, it seems most likely that this type of UAV was the type shot down, though no official confirmation has been made.
The weapon fired by the pro-Syrian drone apparently did not hit its target near At Tanf, instead striking ‘dirt’, according to a spokesman for CENTCOM. The training garrison near At Tanf has been the center of increased tension among Syrian-backed forces and Coalition forces as pro-regime fighters have come under attack by American air power several times, even as recently as Tuesday. A 34-mile wide deconfliction zone has been established by the U.S. around the base at At Tanf and the U.S. has issued repeated warnings to opposing elements regarding their advance on the base.
The timing of this engagement, provided it was in fact an Iranian UAV, is very interesting. Just yesterday an Iranian news outlet posted on YouTube a video purportedly from an Iranian UAV as it flew near an American drone. The drone in the video is a Predator but it cannot be confirmed when or where the video was obtained.
The Shaeed 129 is Iran’s first attempt at a MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance system) UAV. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard unveiled it in 2012 and claim it has an endurance of nearly 24 hours, a range of 1,700 kilometers and can carry up to eight weapons, including the Sadid-1 anti-tank missile.
The Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah also threatened to attack American forces in Syria yesterday, claiming it was only though ‘self-restraint’ that it hadn’t done so already in Syria. Hezbollah is also reportedly in possession of the Shaeed 129 and video has surfaced showing its use in Syria attacking anti-government forces.
UAVs in the face of modern fighters do not stand a chance. While it has not been confirmed yet whether the F-15E used a missile or its internal 20mm gun to down the drone, it is the second time an American aircraft has shot down a UAV. The first downing happened in 2009 over Iraq when a Iranian drone was shot down by American F-16s
Last year, an Israeli F-16 nearly shot down a Russian UAV after the drone had crossed over into Israel from Syria. Israel has shot down drones in the past, including one in 2012 over the Negav desert after the drone had flown in from the Mediterranean. In this incident, a F-16 used a missile to destroy the drone.
The vulnerability of drones to fighters is not a new revelation. As far back as 2002, the USAF was arming its Predators with Stinger air-to-air missiles to address this weakness. The program was short lived after one aerial exchange of missiles in late 2002 over Iraq.
On December 23, 2002 a Predator was flying over Iraq when it was challenged by an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat. Both aircraft engaged and fired missiles. The Predator’s missile fell short but the Foxbat’s did not. Video of the engagement was obtained by CBS News and both missiles can be seen in the sky at the same time. The video ends with the destruction of the Predator, ultimately ending future attempts to arm drones to protect themselves in combat.
The significance of today’s event is not that an F-15E was able to shoot down a drone, but that the drone was shot down after it had launched a failed attack on Coalition forces on the ground. The last official occurrence of American troops being killed in an enemy airstrike was in Korea in 1953.
The proliferation of militarized drones, from military standard to adaptable commercial drones, has spurred a new race to combat the presence of drones and protect ground forces from their attacks. Fortunately, a F-15E was able to intervene today. That may not always be the case, and the day where the security blanket of American air supremacy is lost to a drone fleet may be fast approaching.