The Complex

Watch the drone: Why didn’t the Iranian pilots down the U.S. Predator?

So how is it that the pilots of those Iranian Su-25 attack jets failed to score any hits on the U.S. MQ-1 Predator drone that they shot at with 30 mm cannon last week? Well, it can be difficult for a supersonic fighter to engage a super-slow prop plane — which a Predator is. That’s ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

So how is it that the pilots of those Iranian Su-25 attack jets failed to score any hits on the U.S. MQ-1 Predator drone that they shot at with 30 mm cannon last week?

Well, it can be difficult for a supersonic fighter to engage a super-slow prop plane — which a Predator is. That’s why the United States uses Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopters with snipers aboard to defend the airspace around Washington, D.C. (locals can see the orange Coastie helos tooling around DC’s skies every day) against slow moving targets, like errant Cessnas.

But the Su-25 Frogfoot is the Soviet-designed, Georgian-made version of the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 Warthog, a relatively slow-moving ground attack jet equipped with big guns and the ability to carry a lot of bombs. The Su-25 can fly so slowly that there’s even a variant that is used to tow aerial gunnery targets. It should be the ideal jet to gun down a slow-moving Predator. (Of course, missiles are another story, the Iraqis easily downed a Predator in 2003 using air-to-air missiles.)

The Air Force and Navy routinely make the case that they need to develop a new generation of stealthy, jet-powered UAVs since the current MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers don’t stand a chance of surviving against pretty much any air defenses, from ground based-antiaircraft weapons to fighter jets. Heck, bad weather can easily bring down a Predator.

Press accounts indicate that the Iranian jets fired at the UAV twice — missing both times — as it cruised in international airspace over the Persian Gulf. The Iranian planes apparently followed the drone for a while after shooting at it (maybe they ran out of ammo). Nevertheless, Pentagon officials say they assume Iran was firing to shoot down the drone and not simply firing warning shots.

"Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down. You’ll have to ask the Iranians why they engaged in this action," said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little yesterday.

Still, the circumstances of the incident beg the question: are Iranian ground-attack pilots that bad at air-to-air gunnery, or did they miss deliberately to provoke the United States without actually damaging its property?

(For what it’s worth, we’ve seen some Iranian press accounts say the shots were warning shots.)

When asked if those Iranian pilots should have been able to hit the MQ-1, Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of Analysis (and manned aircraft enthusiast) at the aviation consulting firm Teal Group, said "yes, they should." He then pointed out that the the incident was "an ironic commentary on the limits of UAV utility. Fighters are quite useful across a broad spectrum of conflict, including operations other than war (OOTW). You can’t get a UAV to fire a warning shot, or enforce a no-fly zone, or anything like that. Inhabited fighters will always be essential for armed diplomacy, if you will."  Well, they are for now anyway.

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