Center for Strategic Communication

Two Iranian Su-25 attack jets couldn’t hit a U.S. military MQ-1 Predator, like this one, flying a surveillance mission near Iran on November 1. Photo: National Guard

Updated, 4:27 p.m. EST

Two Iranian jets recently tried and failed to shoot down an unarmed MQ-1 Predator drone flying a surveillance mission over the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon disclosed Thursday. Despite the best efforts of Iranian pilots, the slow-flying robot returned to its Middle Eastern base unharmed.

The incident took place on Nov. 1 just before 5 a.m. Washington time, Pentagon chief spokesman George Little revealed on Thursday. The Predator was conducting a “routine surveillance” mission 16 nautical miles off the coast of Iran when two Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets, which usually shoot at targets on the ground, “intercepted” the drone. The Iranian pilots engaged in something of a 21st-century dogfight, turning their 30-mm guns on the Predator on at least two passes.

The dogfight turned out to be lopsided. Not only did the Predator lack the weaponry to return fire, it probably couldn’t have, as the drones don’t typically carry air-to-air missiles. But in any event, the Iranian pilots missed the drone outright. “The MQ-1 was not hit, and returned to its base safely,” Little said. At all times, Little emphasized, the drone was over international waters and never entered Iranian airspace.

This isn’t the first time the manned and unmanned air forces of the two countries have tangled; in 2009, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an Iranian drone flying over Iraq, as Danger Room first reported. But, according to Little, it is the first time that Iran has ever fired on one of America’s robotic planes. (So cross that off the list of reasons why the U.S. lost a stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel over Iran last year.) There may be more of these events in the future: Little said the U.S. used a Swiss back channel to tell Teheran it’s going to keep flying surveillance missions over the Gulf.

Apparently the Predator was not flown under the auspices of the CIA; Little referred to it as a “military” drone. He said he didn’t have a precise timeline of the incident, but it appears to have taken place quickly. While the U.S. has lots of Navy ships near Iranian waters, including two aircraft carriers, the U.S. didn’t scramble any of its own piloted aircraft to break the Iranian “escort” or otherwise relieve the drone of its pursuers, Little said.

This doesn’t exactly reflect well on Iranian air power. Predators fly slowly: They’re built for loitering, not for evasive maneuvers. In absolute fairness to the Iranian pilots, the Su-25 is built for harassing ground targets, like the U.S. Air Force A-10s that provide close air support for the U.S. Army below, but it’s still notable that on at least two passes, the Iranians did not so much as hit the Predator once.

For what it’s worth, crack aviation blogger David Cenciotti urges a bit of caution on this story. The Iranians apparently have few Su-25s in their inventory — just 13, according to Jane’s Defence Review’s almanac of world air forces. And those 13 planes aren’t exactly fresh off the factory floor. Iran took custody of the jets in 1991 after Iraqi pilots flew them there to escape damage from the first Gulf War, but the Iranians seem not to have flown them very often.

It’s curious why the Pentagon is disclosing the incident now. Little dismissed suggestions that the White House, which was notified of the incident at the time, wanted to keep the weird quasi-dogfight out of the news until after Tuesday’s election. It may also be worth mentioning that the attack comes around the same time as a huge U.S.-Israeli training exercise designed to practice shooting down Iranian missiles.