There was a level of Keystone-Koppery in the encounter last week between two Iranian Su-25 jets and a US Air Force Predator UAV flying in the northern Persian Gulf. But while it’s funny that the Iranians shot at the Predator and didn’t hit it, the era of drones has created a new set of problems for national credibility and the use of power. The problems won’t go away.
The attack on the US Predator occurred on 1 November. The Washington Post reconstructed the drone’s location from Pentagon disclosures, and mapped it here. The incident has not been described in detail, but according to the Pentagon spokesman, a pair of Su-25 Frogfoot jets approached the Predator (during daylight) and attacked with guns. The Predator was in international airspace, some 16 nautical miles from the coast.
The Su-25, a fat, ugly former-Soviet aircraft, is a ground-attack platform. It is not a fighter, and its counter-air capabilities are extremely minimal. The Su-25 is equipped with a 30mm cannon – an effective suppression weapon against ground targets – which presumably was the gun used against the Predator. It is capable of carrying up to two old-technology former-Soviet air-to-air missiles on its wings, but its combat role is supporting ground operations, and the hardstands on its wings are dedicated to air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs.
Again, the Su-25 is not an aerial combat fighter. So it’s an interesting point that Iran sent a pair of Su-25’s to do an aerial combat fighter’s job: shooting down another aircraft. The Predator is a slow-moving target, to be sure, but even being slow-moving doesn’t mean the wrong aircraft for the job can shoot you down. Iran does have plenty of fighter aircraft – mainly Chinese-made F-7s and US-made F-4s – but didn’t choose to send them to conduct this attack.
The possible reasons for this include the theory that Iran didn’t intend to actually shoot down the Predator, but rather to signal a warning (or probe the US reaction). There was no need to send the most effective aircraft, if the objective wasn’t really to down the Predator.
This theory has some justification if we assume that Iran didn’t want to start a full-blown incident with the United States on 1 November. Regardless of the election on the 6th, such an incident might have drawn a response, even from Obama, that would not be to Iran’s advantage. Actually shooting down our drone would have taken the game of cat-and-mouse to a new level – one I don’t assess Iran is prepared to exploit for her purposes, at least not at this moment.
But whether Iran intended to down the drone or not, the Su-25 was just about the lowest-risk aircraft Iran could send to make the attempt. As a combat jet, it’s fast and relatively maneuverable; it could scoot back to Iranian airspace quickly. Only those who’ve seen the Predator video know right now which airframes Iran dispatched on this mission, but if they were two of the Su-25s Iran took possession of when Saddam sent them over the border in 1991, to survive Desert Storm, then they are old and not among Iran’s highest-value aircraft. (Iran bought additional Su-25s directly from Russia in 2006.)
Iran needs her fighters even more than her other tactical jets today, because her most important operational problem – the one she has to organize everything else around – is the threat of air attack by Israel or the United States. If there was a possibility the attack sortie could be shot down (or, perhaps more probably, forced to land in Kuwait or Qatar by US fighters), the price of the attempt would be lower if Su-25s were sent than if Iran sent F-4s or F-7s.
Iran knows at all times what aircraft the US military has aloft in the Persian Gulf. (We also know what Iran has airborne.) Iranian forces mounted this attempt knowing where the potential fighter reaction would come from – and knowing as well that the US operates Patriot missile batteries in Kuwait. We don’t know exactly where any US Aegis destroyers or cruisers might have been in the Persian Gulf – although Iran probably did – but with the 100 nautical mile (115 statute miles/190km) range of the Standard Missile (SM-2) used by the Aegis system for air intercept, the Aegis ship(s) didn’t have to be especially close. US Air Force and Navy commands around the Gulf would have had a near-continuous digitized picture of where the Su-25s were throughout their flight.
Iran had to consider how the US might react, given our excellent capability to deal forcibly with Iranian aircraft trying to shoot our drone down. She probably sent Su-25s as much because of their relatively low value as for any other reason. Iran hoped to achieve her objective while incurring the lowest risk she could to herself.
Now Iran has a good data point, however, on what the US reaction will be (which may well have been the objective). We cut the Predator’s mission short and sent it back to base, following that up with a diplomatic protest to Iran, forwarded through the US Interests section of the Swiss embassy in Tehran.
The “significance calculus” of drones is at work here. The point of drones is that they are unmanned. In a permissive environment – the kind we have mostly enjoyed up to now – we aren’t faced with deciding how much it means if an unmanned airframe is attacked. But that permissive period in the history of American drone ops is about to end. We will have to sort out the questions this platform implies. It may be the property of the United States, carrying out our policies, but if there are no humans being attacked, is that a shooting matter? What kind of breach is it for Iran to attack a hunk of metal flying on avgas?
The truth is, we really don’t have a definition – nor does the rest of the world. This is new territory, and the meaning will be developed – at least in the near future – by the construction the president of the United States puts on it. If we don’t call the Iranian attempt an attack on the US, and we can’t call it an attack on Americans, what we can unquestionably call it is an armed attack on American policy. President Obama has chosen to react by lodging a diplomatic protest.
It remains to be seen how we will handle the operational need for surveillance that was being fulfilled on 1 November by the Predator. We may simply resume Predator missions exactly as we were conducting them, essentially daring Iran to try this again. I doubt we will decide to defend the Predator with fighters – a measure that would call into question how we are using these platforms – but we might decide to use manned surveillance aircraft to collect the intelligence in question. Switching from the Predator to a manned aircraft would, in effect, send a signal that we will defend the surveillance platform. It would also amount to a tacit policy announcement, one we were backed into by Iran.
If we change anything in our surveillance profile in the northern Persian Gulf because of this incident, that will be a payoff for Iran. But it will also be an example to the world. The Israel Project pointed out yesterday that the US-friendly Gulf nations are already jittery about Iran; a passive – or even “prudently-adjusting” – US reaction to the attack on our drone won’t assuage their fears.
It’s worth asking the question: if we don’t defend the Predator against an attack by Iran, will we defend our satellites against an attack by China? They are equally unmanned. They’re the property but not the territory of the United States. Attacking them is attacking US policy. It’s attacking our electronic eyes and ears – but then, so is attacking the Predator. The day when we will have to make decisions about these things – decisions that affect our credibility and standing in the world; decisions that may make war more likely if we don’t take them wisely – is now upon us.
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