One of the most frequently asked questions I get asked is “when will drones take on the air to air fighter role?” I have answered this with a constellation of pieces and will continue to do so with some upcoming features I have been working on, yet the reality is that the first air to air drone engagement took place almost a decade ago over an Iraq still under Saddam Hussein’s control…
By 2002 the saber-rattling between the Bush Administration and Saddam’s gang of war criminals and military puppets (who can every forget goons like “Baghdad Bob,” Tariq Aziz, and “Chemical” Ali?) had reached a thundering crescendo. IAEA inspectors were frustrated, the US had assets literally pouring into the region, and the long-established no fly zone was still firmly in place over northern and southern Iraq. As tensions increased Saddam’s forces became more emblazoned and defiant towards coalition aerial patrols. It just seemed crystal clear that war was on its way no-matter what really happened. At the same time, America was continuing to realize the true value of the General Atomics Q-1 series of unmanned aircraft. At the time, less than a decade ago, the USAF only had a small inventory Predators, less than two-dozen to be mores specific, compared with today where well over 200 Q-1 and Q-9 series of unmanned aircraft fly for the USAF.
From what I have heard about this unique footnote in military aviation history is that it was somewhat common that MiG-25 Foxbats would make slashing incursions across the no fly zone boundaries, especially when US unmanned aircraft were operating in the areas and when coalition AWACs coverage was offline. The US recognized the increase in Iraqi brazenness and devised a plan to first bait and subsequently deter Iraqi aggression towards unmanned aerial vehicles.
At first the Predators would bait the Iraqi fighters to violate the no fly zone boundary and then they would run. Over time a cat and mouse game ensued, until one day the Predator did not run. Instead it made an intercept course for the fast flying MiG-25. This is where the video posted below comes into play, you see these were no normal RQ-1 Predators, they were in fact armed with a pair of AIM-92 heat seeking “Stinger” missiles.
The MiG-25 is thought to have fired a medium range AA-6 “Acrid” air to air missile at a relatively close distance from the diminutive Predator, although still at a long enough distance that the Predator’s AIM-92′s could not lock onto the massive MiG’s heat signature. Thus the Predator fired its missile while the Iraqi’s shot was well on its way. The Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat missile’s hot exhaust confused the Stinger’s infra-red seeker which sent it astray. Foxbot one, Predator zero. In the end the little Predator, pretty much the slowest and lightest combat aircraft in the USAF’s inventory, was brought down by a massive MiG-25, the heaviest and fastest fighter in the Iraqi Air Force at the time.
Just like a classic gunfighter’s standoff, the guy that was able to shoot first lived to tell the story, just barely averting mutual destruction. Surely the Iraqi MiG-25 pilot must have been amazed when he saw what amounts to a seemingly defenseless glorified radio controlled plane shoot back at his mach three capable interceptor. Yet maybe what at face value seems like a loss for the USAF was in fact exactly the outcome they wanted as that was the last time Iraqi fighters ever pushed an intercept on an unmanned US drone.
And that my friends is how the future of unmanned air to air combat was born…