Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | November 9, 2012

Iran Attacks! Predator in peril

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.

Plug-ugly Iranian Su-25; Fars image, h/t Uskowi on Iran:

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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

Note for new commenters:  Welcome!  There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam.  There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.



  1. You want to defend an unmanned aircraft against shots that didn’t damage it —and likely were not intended to hit it?

    do you walk the streets screaming at people who give you dirty looks, Chica?

    • The comparison don’t hold, brandishing a weapon and randomly shooting sure hurt no one, so we should allow that too.

      Of course the drones should be defended in International airspace, but maybe with inboard air-to-air missiles instead of fighters. If harmed it is still attacked, than maybe scrambling is needed

      • Samuel. the Iranians are looking to provoke a reaction so that they can go wailing about how they’re being picked upon.

        instead of defending what hasn’t been harmed,we’ll go right ahead with destroying their economy as we’re rather successfully doing.

        • And yet the happily march towards the nuclear bomb.

          Do you really think that the Ayatollahs watch the unemployment number and worry about polls ? You can destroy their economy as much as you want, they will manage to milk their people of enough resources to keep building their nukes.

          North Korea have been in the economic toilet for a long time, but yet the managed to build nukes and rockets, because they don’t care about how many die in rice paddies.

          Manned or not, they should be scarred of attacking any American aircraft.

          • they ain’t happily about much ‘tall, Samuel.

            they’re starting to hurt and getting real fidgety that everything is going badly for them and they can’t even elicit sympathetic noises from the usual bunch of international maggots and Western gumps.

            why, they wonder, aren’t Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney and George Galloway steaming toward their rescue?

    • You are wasting your sweetness on the desert air.

      Do you actually think that an individual who would posit an analogy between the Iranians (perhaps) taking a potshot at a surveillance drone with the Chinese shooting down one of our spy satellites, is a serious person?

      • my esteem for the opticon is without measure or limit and all my sweetness is ever available.

        • Tut, tut. Appeasement is always a bad idea.

          • can’t help it
            cant help it
            cant help it.

            I’m like Ronnie, hopelessly smitten and sending cakes, and Bibles, and fancy handguns,

            and maybe some Stingers.

            to me, all I see is the Ayatollah of LUUUUUUV

  2. Lose an ambassador here, a drone there…

    The Iranians are scoring some (very)cheap PR points.

    Things aren’t going quite as planned for the West in Syria. Hillary admitted (defeat) as much in Zagreb, few noticed. The Sunnis were humiliatingly forced to swallow appointing a Christian to head up the SNC in Qatar… We will see how that pig flies down the line with the MB and Al-Qaeda..

    The whole of the “Arab Spring’ strategy is coming apart at the seams.

    The last thing this president wants is to deploy American troops in a new armed conflict…

    …And everybody knows it. Especially the Iranians.

    I still believe the road to an Iran solution goes through Moscow. I hope we haven’t blown it with them. Peres wasn’t in Moscow just to open a museum….


    • will he be pilloried, FOOTS?
      or murdered in the Abbey?

      • Can a dead man testify on Bengazi?

        • will Little Nell perish on the train tracks where Snidely has left her tied or will Dudley and Horse be in time??????

          stay tuned till next time, FOOTS, and enjoy the lovely fall weather on campus at Wassamatta U while waiting.

  4. Completely off topic. Supposition entirely. Obama: If CIA doesn’t take the fall for the embassy fiasco, we will have the FBI suddenly discover the affair we have all held over your head for some time. Director to Obama: Drop Dead, Bring It ! Director testifies in front of Intelligence Comittee as a civilian.

  5. Walt Reed has the closest estimate to mine. To speak without constraint, Petraeus has to be out of the CIA job.

    But we’ll see. I suspect Mrs. Petraeus and a tiny, very select circle of the general’s nearest and dearest are the only people who know the full truth right now.

    • Never appoint someone on whom you don’t have something embarrassing.

    • KT McFarland has made the same assessment. She is convinced he will testify. Your comment about the select circle is spot on I bet. Their loyalty to Obama might be slightly suspect.
      I think crossing CIA and throwing the Director under the bus is a very stupid thing to do. I bet they have very long knives and really don’t need to be in a hurry about it. It will be cold soon.
      Senator Feinstein did not want the General to leave. Her role may be pivatol.

      • Yeah, we’ll see. I saw a very discouraging piece at NYT today, which if valid — and it’s got a lot of detail — sounds like Petraeus may well have decided to resign because of the noise his affair had created. Link:

        Apparently his one-time gal-pal sent threatening emails to a third party, and an FBI investigation of that turned up her connection to Petraeus. The FBI informed national security officials, and it all went downhill from there.

        Icky. And sad.

        • Very sad JE. I do not dismiss the poor decision the General made.
          I would like to say this if I may (without excusing or trying to ameliorate his actions.
          People under extreme stress and/or far away from home seek and reach out to other human beings in in-appropriate ways. Some people (the best and brightest have to pay a terrible price). I know this is not news to you with your experience with information and people.

          • I don’t disagree, wreed. I imagine Petraeus has been under a lot of stress in the last three years. First, agreeing to step down from being CENTCOM to take over for McChrystal in Afghanistan. That was a paradigm-breaking move, and one that signalled a certain amount of desperation in the national security establishment.

            Then moving to CIA and the national intelligence establishment, which is basically a cesspool at the upper levels. In terms of stomach-churning stress, feeling like the knives are out for you 24/7, it’s worse than the Pentagon.

            We don’t know where Mrs. Petraeus was in all this. It may be that the move to CIA was hard on her. Whatever you see on TV, the military wives are awesome ladies, a tight-knit bunch who get each other through a lot, and moving to CIA took Holly Petraeus out of that circle for most work-related social purposes.

            We’ll see in the coming days. Petraeus may simply sink from sight without further ripples. Or he may see this abrupt ending as an opportunity to speak his piece to the public.

            • He is a patriot. I doubt he has any spite in him, but I would like for him to speak out about security issues.
              Your comments about military wives is spot on.
              Lastly, my thoughts about the administration holding something over the Generals head is because: He took a step down for Afganistan. He wasn’t appointed Chief of Staff or Nato Commander. He was forced to retire and end up in a dead end job at CIA.
              I think he is just a little too sharp, too competent, and too open to view the facts about National Security in a professional way for this Pretend Administration.
              He came under the control of incompetent political hacks from Chicago.
              We are going to get hit again while Obama is dreaming about his father.

  6. Sigh. The willful obtuseness of fuster and paulite t continues but then, why would we expect differently of their ilk? Apologists and pacifists can’t change because their thinking because their positions are rationalized with intellectual dishonesty to cover up moral cowardice.

    For those more serious, opticon points out the immediate and future considerations and potential repercussions of this event.

    One consideration that opticon didn’t mention is that the Iranian’s never intended to shoot down the drone. That sending up inappropriate interceptors was an irrelevant consideration because they intentionally ‘missed’, that this was a warning and if so, our reaction of pulling the drone off its mission and essentially fleeing International space is psychologically significant. It’s an indicator that we are unwilling to confront Iran and is further evidence to the Iranian’s that when push comes to shove, Obama will NOT militarily confront Iran to prevent its achieving nuclear weapons capability.

    It’s now an inevitable future reality; Iran will gain the bomb, we will essentially abandon Israel, nuclear proliferation will spread throughout the M.E., and most significantly, jihadist terrorist groups will get their hands on nukes.

    Actions have consequences. The consequence of Obama’s refusal to militarily confront Iran with the support of a slim majority of Americans will result in the unnecessary deaths of millions. When America loses entire cities to nuclear terrorism, martial law and isolationism will result. An America in retreat will result in China and Russia filling that vacuum.

    China wants to militarize space. It has had programs working on that capability for years, so they have a head start on the Russians.

    Taking out our satellites would be a necessary first step in any major conflict in imposing dominance from space. The recent successful testing of the Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) demonstrates part of a successful high altitude, space-based missile platform.

    Another part of such a platform is the high-powered Airborne Laser System being developed by Boeing Co. and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

    China is not unaware of these US programs and is undoubtedly working on their own similar programs while seeking to obtain classified intelligence on our advanced weapons projects.

    Since time immemorial, there have been significant tactical and strategic advantages to holding the high ground and, whomever militarily holds sway over space has the potential to impose its dominance upon the entire planet.

    Liberalism and its essential component pacifism, eventuates in the meek inheriting the slavery of submission and the eventual consequence of a society and world where might makes right and the most ruthless rule.

    • fuster the obtuse suggested, genius Geoffrey, that they were indeed not intending to hit the thing.

      our reaction should be to keep right on not reacting and continuing along our path. they’ll crack

      • And if they don’t crack? Iran gaining nuclear weapons capability is a fundamental strategic tipping point, yes? (both Clinton’s, Kerry, and even Obama have, in the past, publicly so stated)

        If so, then the scenario I predicted proceeds further down a path where your moral culpability in the deaths of millions becomes undeniable.

        Failing to present a credible rationale in rebuttal amounts to simple denial of personal responsibility, which would wipe not a drop of blood off your hands.

        • if they don’t crack, then they get cracked.

          • Right. Obama is a man so committed to a policy of appeasement that he’s willing to sacrifice American lives, including people he knows (Ambassador Stevens). Yet you posit that if push comes to shove, he’ll start a war with the heart of fanatic, jihadist terrorism. A more perfect example of cognitive dissonance in support of wishful thinking would be hard to find.

    • I thought Paul and Fuster were picking out patterns together in Barcelona. I loved the movie, by the way.

      • my heart belongs to the blonde, reed.

        • Paul is blonde?

  7. Acually, GB, I did mention that the Iranians may not have meant to shoot down the drone, but only to warn. In claiming that I want to “defend an unmanned aircraft against shots that didn’t damage it,” fuster is being fuster, attributing to me actions I haven’t advocated, for reasons I haven’t advanced.

    The issue of what we do about drones is a bigger one that the 1 November incident. What will be the state of a world in which some nations are flying drones over others, and other nations are shooting the drones down, and there’s never a reckoning? Is that a world that will be stable and peaceful? Can we rely on nations run by Islamists or authoritarian socialists to observe the nice distinction between unmanned and manned platforms, if we are not protecting our national policies against armed aggression? How about the distinction between a Predator drone and a communications satellite?

    In terms of policy ideas, our national government is nowhere near ready to deal with these questions. The potential for the questions has been there for 20 years; it’s not like the Obama administration is uniquely delinquent here. But Obama has dramatically expanded the use of our long-range drones, well beyond what Bush did, so that now the issue is much larger than it was 5 or 6 years ago. There’s more than one nation out there that won’t like being under “routine” surveillance by our drones. This will come up again.

    • I thought it quite fair to think that you were suggesting that we were ducking out on a required defense of drones……..

      ” 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? “

      • and am quite happy to have you explaining and expanding.

    • Sorry opticon, I should have rechecked, I forgot that you mentioned that possibility. Whether cooler heads prevail aside, surveillance by unmanned drones is really a matter of whether that surveillance presents a physical incursion into their air apace. If so, a nation has every right to destroy the drone, if not, they have no right to do so.

      In any case, destroying property with no loss of life would only rise to an act of war, if the property was located within the host country’s boundaries or, if that property represented a major national security asset, such as our satellite network.

      Common sense, as always, is the operative condition when considering new situations.

  8. Some more thoughts

    Not that I believe this is likely to (currently) occur but. An Iran with nothing left to lose could consider the following option.

    If the Iranians succeed in blitzing their way to down to the Shia Saudi provinces (they could, they will sacrifice thousands of troops), and arouse/arm the local population into rebellion/secession….the cat and mouse drone game and any naval actions taken over/in the gulf will be indecisive as per the final local outcome, namely a Shia Arab state controlling a large percentage of the the worlds best oil fields….. a victory for Iran…unless we’re gonna put in boots on the ground… again.

    Obama telegraphing that he is totally adverse to brawling (while sanctioning Iran till they supposedly cry uncle) is making the above hypothetical more plausible. Iran has been around for thousands of years… They came back from a Mongol conquest. They are not going to crack under sanctions. If anything, they’ll get stronger.

    My (rough) take on the drone / satellite comparison. ..
    It’s well know that everyone’s satellites will be taken out as a precursor, if general hostilities are about to break out. The taking out of even one satellite is grounds for full scale war. Satellites are high value targets.

    There is a problem in identifying whether a drone is a weapons platform or a reconnaissance platform. This makes them destabilizing.
    I believe drones will be dealt with as manned (unarmed)spy planes are for the most part, for now. Drones will or will not violate sovereign air space, and subsequently, will or will not be shot down/intercepted. A lot depends if someone wishes to create a pretext for other actions. It also depends on how the actions or lack thereof, are interpreted (or wish to be interpreted) , or replied to, by the parties involved. If someone wants to turn up the heat, then drones will aggressively violate airspace and will be shot down. If not, they will find other ways to respond. As drone technology and capability advances, the problems on how to adequately counter the weapon/platform will increase, probably making miscalculations more likely, thereby leading to a greater chance of conflict and escalation. Unless some treaty on the rules of their use can be agreed to.

    • To modify your scenario just a bit, Iran might very well be involved in an overthrow of the Saudi government. But a “Shia Arab’ government where Iran controls Saudi Arabia’s oil fields is unrealistic. Wahhabi radicals seizing control with the assistance of Iran, yes. The Sunni – Shia animosity could be set aside (temporarily) in seeking to bring down the little and great Satan’s, yes. (Morsi has already indicated a willingness to work with Iran) Iran essentially conquering Saudi Arabia, no.

      • Just to clarify GB.
        The coastal region up to Damman, is what I was referring to geographically.
        I didn’t mean that Iran would control this area, or Saudi Arabia. Iran, would attempt to create a “Shia Arab” entity in the area that is independent of Riyadh.

        Even in a likely Iranian military defeat, if one of the results is a breakaway or autonomous Shia Arab entity on the western shore of the Persian gulf, it is a victory for Iran in the long haul.

      • PS

        I do believe we will be hearing more from the Saudi Eastern Province and Bahrain… the more things become entangled in Syria, etc.

  9. “My (rough) take on the drone / satellite comparison. ..
    It’s well know that everyone’s satellites will be taken out as a precursor, if general hostilities are about to break out. The taking out of even one satellite is grounds for full scale war. Satellites are high value targets.”

    Right, jgets, but we assume that taking out satellites is an act of war. We’ve had a network of assumptions about satellites, IT wars, how wars will start, and what constitutes a casus belli for a long time now. But we haven’t fit drones into a niche in that network.

    If a drone shoot-down occurs — mounted by a nation we’re not at war with (or operating militarily in) — we will have to establish a new set of assumptions. We haven’t done that.

    As GB points out, no nation has the “right” to shoot down one of our drones if it hasn’t penetrated the nation’s airspace. But who cares what “rights” they have in this regard? If they do it and we don’t respond in a way that deters them from doing it again, then they might as well have the “right.” In international relations, force is still the only thing that establishes rights and obligations. Without force behind them, cross-border rights and obligations are just so much cotton candy.

    We haven’t done anything about rules on these matters for the use of drones. I am by no means in sympathy with the politics of activists who want the UN to bring suit against the US for our use of drones in the International Criminal Court, but they do have a point that drones are out doing things that the letter of current international law never envisioned.

    The status of drones is murky in more than one regard. It’s not as simple as fuster’s original slanted question suggests: if we had agreed-on rules against attacking foreign drones in international airspace, then unsuccessful ATTEMPTS to attack them would also be covered by those rules. But we don’t have the rules, nor do we have even a US policy. Passivity in this regard is a policy weakness that sooner or later might well extend, in the minds of wanna-be US opponents, to satellites and other higher-value, unmanned assets. We have a lot of them coming down the pike.

    • it’s a bit murkier even than “unsuccessful attack” when someone fires a gun in the vicinity of, without striking, and without any clear intent to strike, a piece of property and is not endangering human life.

      might fall under “disturbing the peace ” rather than anything more….

    • Roughly, again.

      Drones pretty much fall under the murky heading of the covert. Spies, saboteurs and special ops, in their modern technological incarnation. I agree with all you stated. For the most part, states will probably choose a case by case (or incident by incident) approach, taking other factors into account, just as they have always done concerning acts of covert/undeclared war.

      I think I see where you are headed on the satellite tie in, (you are also alluding to the possibility that an automated guided-missile surface ship.could also be loosely defined as a “drone” target, for example, I assume). Also. you are referring. I assume, to the possibility of a non-rational actor attaining this “drone/satellite/roboship-killer” capability in addition to run of the mill adversaries and their proxies.

      Unfortunately as the technological gap continues to narrow this threat will become more likely. The way I see it tonight, the usual combination of credible deterrence, good Intel, good diplomacy, and if necessary, preemptive strikes (in various forms) is the best response to this. If I come up with another angle I’ll let you know. It could take days to flesh this out. I wish I had the time, 🙂

      Side note.
      Concerning “international airspace”. You well know that “incidents” (that come out in public),usually occur in “disputed airspace” or in the case of vessels, “disputed territorial waters”. This will remain standard practice for all altercations manned or unmanned.

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