Iranian combat planes tried to shoot down a U.S. Predator. A weird story.

Nov 08 2012 - 15 Comments

According to the CNN, that was the first to report the story, on Nov. 1, two Iranian combat planes tried to shoot down a U.S. Predator spyplane off the coast of Iran.

The American MQ-1 was flying a routine surveillance flight in international airspace some 16 miles off Iran, when, according to U.S. officials, it was approached by two Iranian planes that opened fire against it with the onboard guns.

Since the drone cameras captured the incident, the officials identified the attacking planes as two Su-25 Frogfoot bombers.

Even though the Iranian pilots continued to fire shots on several firing passes, none of them hit the Predator, that safely returned to its homebase.

So, summing up, two Iranian planes deliberately attacked a U.S. unmanned aircraft in the Persian Gulf, and missed it.

What’s weird in this story?

First of all, the type of platform used to intercept the drone. The Su-25 is not fighter jet. It is the Russian equivalent of the A-10. The Iranian Air Force does not operate any of such planes. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force (former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Air Force) has added seven Iraqi Air Force Su-25s that fled to Iran in January 1991, during Operation Desert Storm.

Although this is far from being confirmed, no more than 16 Su-25s (between former Iraqi and new ones) are believed to be based by Tehran at the base of Shiraz, in eastern Iran (not far from the Persian Gulf). How many of them are airworthy is still an open question. Some believe the lack of spare parts and pilot training has sensibly reduced the amount of flying hours available with the Su-25.

The ramp at Shiraz airbase showing four Su-25s (Google Maps)

Surely, two were spotted flying at the beginning of 2012. Were those involved in the recent incident? Maybe there are a few more available, even if it must be noticed that, with all the aircraft in IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) the Frogfoot is the less likely asset to be used to intercept a hostile aircraft. Especially on the eastern coast, where Iranian air defenses should be on a heightned alert status for a possible Israeli/US attack.

Second weird thing is that the “interceptors” were armed. If they were involved in a training mission and caught the drone almost by accident, they were most probably unarmed.

I don’t find much odd the fact that they missed their target. As said the Su-25 (provided this kind of plane was really involved in the incident) is a bomber. As such, its pilots does not train that much in air-to-air gunnery. Even if a flying Predator might appear as an easy target, don’t forget that you need a certain amount of training to shoot down another aircraft, even when you are flying on a hi-tech fighter.

Do you remember the Israeli F-16 that had to fire two air-to-air missiles at the drone that had violated the Israeli airspace last month?

Still, the Su-25 is not a fast jet and it maneuvers quite well at very low speed, hence attacking a slow mover should not have been a factor. On the other side, it’s unclear why the Iranians would not dispatch other higher performance fighters if they really wanted to down the drone. Did the Su-25s only fire some warning shots to the Predator?

Most probably, more details will emerge in the following days.

Image credit: Martin Garcia/Flickr

  • pat

    I think it’s possible inter-service politics played a roll in this. Su-25’s are the only fighter aircraft operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s air wing. If the rumored reports of Iranian Air Force planes shooting down western drones on occasion are true, then maybe the Revolutionary Guard was tired of the Air Force getting all the glory and tried to send up two of their own birds to show that they could do it too. Who knows? If inter-service politics works anything in Iran like it does other countries then maybe their commanders thought a drone shoot-down would equal more publicity and therefore more funding/resources.

  • pat

    Also, it would not suprise me if Iranian aircraft are armed on training missions. They are likely on a high state of alert given tensions with the U.S and Israel, so I wouldn’t be suprised if all of their combat aircraft carry at least some armament in the event an attack on the country is launched.

  • pat

    Another thought: It could be possible that the reason the Revolutionary Guard Su-25’s were used instead of Air Force aircraft was that the Iranians were hedging their bets in case the Americans tried to retaliate against the aircraft. The Iranians only have a handful of them. They’re likely difficult to maintain and rarely fly, therefore Su-25 pilots likely have little training. This, and the fact that they are operated by the fanatical Revolutionary Guard instead of the Air Force, makes me think that the Iranians consider the Su-25’s expendable. They’re low readiness and small numbers make them useless in a confrontation with the U.S, so better to have one of them shot down chasing a drone than one of their precious F-14’s.

  • Ano N. Ymous

    Most importantly, if the Iranians really wanted to down the drone, why didn’t the Frogfoots use the R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) missiles to do so? The Su-25 can carry two such missiles in it’s outmost pylons, primarily as a self defense asset, and Iran is known to possess them.

    • Ano N. Ymous

      To answer myself, based on pat’s insights above, the potential answer is “because the R-60 are Air Force owned and the Revolutionary Guard does not possess any.”

      • henry

        Iranian fired warning shots first and said if you don’t leave the area next shot will be directed at your drone . after Iran’s warning shot , American drone left the area

  • Marco

    Generally speaking, the Su-25 would be a good, if not perfect choice to intercept, identify and eventually gun down a slow mover if you cannot afford an over-kill on the drone (like Israeli and US forces do).
    It is true that Iranian Su-25 pilots could lack dedicated training though.

    It is worth reminding that Su-22’s were extensively used in air to air operations (Lybian Su-22’s vs USN F-14, Peruvian Su-22’s vs USAF C-130), same with the US made A-37’s in South America vs drug planes and the A-10 in Desert Storm.
    Even the Apache helicopter is used as a potential interceptor for slow movers and it successfully intercepted, engaged and downed a Lebanese Cessna 172 in Israeli service.

  • bd

    A lot of speculation here, especially re: RG willingly sacrificing their air assets. We will probably not know the full story, but any video release should help clarify somewhat. The theory of it being warning shots so far is the most plausible: type of asset, type of weapons used, over international weather, etc. As we know the Iranians are quite capable of downing UAVs.

  • upnorth

    Propably target of opportunity. It could be good career move in Iran to shoot down anything american.

    Well, didn’t play out that well this time. Public embarassment for one’s unit propably doesn’t earn a promotion. Allah wasn’t so “akhbar” this time.

  • Mo

    Com on people! Iran have 3 airbases Dozens of F-14s and F-4s in alert and hek of air defense on that area! and not having Aphid!, i mean come on, they bought Buk and Tor missiles from russia, they even bought Su-25s! arent they smar enough to by ammunition to?!?
    by the way: Iran’s Defence minster confirmed the incident but didn, specified the aircarft type

  • Matthew Stanley

    The Predator Drone flies at a speed of 70 MPH? The SU-25 Jet is a “Training Aircraft ” which flies at a speed of 560 MPH,armed with an GSH-30-2 –30 Millimeter cannon with 500 Rounds of ammunition and two rails capable of holding R-60 SCRAAMS .It’s not likely they could miss our drone. Sounds to me like an attempt by “Hawks” on Middle East policy,”to create an incident” to justify another Proxy war in Iran

  • Paul

    Drone was in Iranian airspace.

    “An Iranian Su-25 fighter jet pursued the U.S. drone as it retreated from Iranian airspace, the spokesman said.”

  • they cooled just slightly make contact with the propeller .
    That would be enough. And safe as well considering the design of the su-25

  • jeniffer

    Ifound it that iran is more powerfull than the thing that I thought before

  • Stefano Mencarelli

    Sarà perché i piloti iraniani non erano addestrati al tiro aria-aria, ma il Su-25 è uno dei migliori aerei anti slow-movers, come è ben noto per la sua agilità anche nelle vallate strette dell’A-stan. Inoltre è un velivolo armato di un cannone da 30 mm micidiale e generalmente equipaggiato con un sensore laser, combinazione letale visti i risultati del MiG-29.

    Oltretutto non è corretto definirlo ‘bombardiere’ visto che le sue caratteristiche di volo e operative sono più simili a dei ‘cacciabombardieri d’attacco’ come l’A-4 e l’AMX, che a dei veri ‘bombardieri’ come l’A-10 o il Tornado IDS. Bisognerebbe decidersi, visto che l’AMX, a proposito, per la stampa italiana è puntualmente un ‘cacciabombardiere’ leggero, mentre tutti gli altri aerei della categoria sono ‘qualcos’altro’ (vedi anche AV-8, Su-25, Hawk 200, S.Etendard).