Shahed-129 drone on display in Tehran, Iran, 2016. Image: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A US Air Force F-15 jet fighter has shot down a large, armed drone that attacked pro-US forces near At Tanf, a strategic town in southeastern Syria near the border with Iraq.The aerial clash on June 8, 2017 was the first time that an American warplane had engaged an armed enemy drone in the sky—and could be a preview of dangers to come as more and more rogue states acquire cheap, sophisticated, armed robotic aircraft.
It's unclear who operated the drone, which US Central Command—the regional headquarters that oversees the wars in Iraq and Syria—described as "pro-regime." The Syrian government, pro-government militias and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that has intervened in Syria on behalf of the government, all possess Iranian-made drones.The American fighter, which according to The New York Times was a two-person F-15E model, intercepted the mystery drone "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," Central Command stated.Many, but not all, of the coalition advisors in Syria are Americans. Central Command did not mention any casualties resulting from the drone strike.The US headquarters said the enemy unmanned aerial vehicle was "similar in size to a US MQ-1 Predator." The Predator, one of the Air Force's main drones, is roughly the size of a Cessna private plane. The most likely match is Iran's Shahed-129, a propeller-drive, single-engine drone that first appeared in 2012, and which can be armed with short-range air-to-ground missiles.Iranian and similar Chinese-made drones are popular with poor and rogue states across Africa and the Middle East. Syria, Iraq and Nigeria all operate missile-armed Iranian- or Chinese-made UAVs. Not to be outdone, the Islamic State has bought quadcopter-style commercial drones, fitted them with hand-grenade-size bombs and sent them on bombing runs against its opponents in Iraq and Syria.
In 2014, Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq—an Iranian-controlled militia group fighting for the Syrian regime—claimed it had deployed a Shahed-129 to fire missiles at ISIS militants in neighboring Iraq. But experts disputed the claim. The video that Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq circulated as proof of the robotic attack in fact depicted a strike by manned Iraqi warplanes.Three years later it seems the Shahed-129 is attacking targets for real. The F-15 was too late to prevent the drone from firing its missile, but did manage to destroy the robot before it returned to base.The Air Force's F-15 squadrons have experience shooting down Predator-style drones. In 2009, an Air Force Reaper—a larger version of the Predator—malfunctioned over Afghanistan and began flying out-of-control toward Tajikistan. An F-15E chased down the rogue robot and destroyed it with a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile before it crossed the border. For months afterward, the F-15 displayed, under its canopy, a painted-on kill marking in the shape of a missile.But most US fighter pilots do not routinely train to shoot down slow-flying drones, which by virtue of their small size and lightweight construction can be difficult to detect—especially if they're flying low over rough terrain.As more and more armed drones take to the skies, US forces must adapt, Paul Scharre, a researcher with the Washington, DC-based Center for a New American Security, told a US Senate subcommittee in March 2017. ISIS's quadcopters might even pose a greater threat than Iran's Shahed-129s."US ground forces … face the threats of air attack from non-state actors equipped with low-cost commercially available drones," Scharre warned. "While these low-cost drones are not a threat to US fighter aircraft, they are a threat to ground forces and US fighters are improperly matched to counter this threat."Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .