US Drones Over Persian Gulf Now Have Escorts

The latest incident in the cat and mouse drone games the US and Iran are carrying out has an Iranian jet coming close to a US Predator drone over the Persian Gulf. US reports on the incident all rely on information released by Defense Department spokesman George Little and every report that I have read in the media includes, but does not comment on, the fact that this drone was accompanied by two US escort planes. As recently as the incident back in November when Iranian jets fired on a drone it is clear that drones were not escorted, so the presence of escorts is a new development.

Here is the New York Times on the incident:

The Pentagon press secretary, George Little, said that in the episode on Tuesday, an Iranian F-4 jet fighter approached within 16 miles of the Predator, which was being escorted by a pair of American military aircraft. United States officials did not say what type of American planes were involved.

“The Iranian aircraft departed after a verbal warning,” Mr. Little said. An initial Pentagon statement said one of the American escort planes had fired a flare to warn the Iranian jet away but later retracted that report. Mr. Little said that after the encounter in November, the United States sent a message to Iran that the American military would “continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region.”

Similar language is used to repeat Little’s information in reports from Bloomberg and the AP report carried by NPR.

That the escorts are new is clear from this CNN story about the November incident:

Two Iranian Su-25 fighter jets fired on an unarmed U.S. Air Force Predator drone in the Persian Gulf on November 1, the Pentagon disclosed on Thursday.


Two U.S. officials explained the jets were part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps force, which has been more confrontational than regular Iranian military forces.

At least two bursts of gunfire came from the Su-25s’ cannons. The drone started to move away but the Iranian aircraft chased it, doing aerial loops around it before breaking away and returning to Iran.


The drone’s still and video cameras captured the incident showing two Su-25s approaching the Predator and firing onboard guns.

The Iranian pilots continued to fire shots that went beneath the Predator but were never successful in hitting it, according to the officials.

U.S. military intelligence analysts are still not sure if the Iranian pilots simply were unable to hit the drone due to lack of combat skill, or whether they deliberately were missing and had no intention of bringing it down.

Clearly, the account of this incident is based on the cameras that were aboard the drone and no escort planes were present or we would also have the accounts of the escort pilots for what transpired. We also presumably would have had an account of our escort planes interacting with the Iranian jets.

The presence of the escorts could be a simple act of physical security. The very next paragraph in the New York Times story quote above states:

“We also communicated that we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so going forward,” Mr. Little said.

There is an additional possibility for why the drones now have escorts. As Marcy noted when Iran came into possession of our RQ-170 in December of 2011, there was reason to believe that Iran may have hacked into the drone’s control system and brought it down. Iran now flatly claims that to be the case and in fact the account of this most recent incident by PressTV concludes with this paragraph:

The Iranian military also grounded a US RQ-170 Sentinel stealth aircraft in December, while the drone was flying over the city of Kashmar, some 225 kilometers (140 miles) from Iran’s border with Afghanistan. The RQ-170 was brought down with minimal damage by the Iranian Army’s electronic warfare unit.

Escort planes flown by the US could be present not only for the physical security of deterring Iranian jets intent on shooting down the drone, but they might also be present to monitor electronic signals sent from Iran in attempts to bring the drone under Iranian control. In fact, the presence of two escort planes and the notation from the New York Times that the US did not identify what kind of planes these were leaves open the possibility that one escort could have been a US fighter jet and the other a more conventional aircraft carrying signal monitoring equipment.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
16 replies
  1. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Manned fighters escorting a drone? Kind of cuts the ground out from under the justifications for “cheaper, less danger to personnel” use of drones, doesn’t it?

  2. Kirk says:

    re the last paragraph, signal monitoring aircraft are not “more conventional”. They’re the specialized variations of conventional aircraft such as fighters.

  3. Jim White says:

    @Snarki, child of Loki: Pretty much. Especially for the bit about drones being able to stay aloft for so many hours at a time. That’s why I think the escorts may be about us trying to find out if Iran really can hack or could even be an attempt to triangulate where the hacking signals are being generated.

  4. Kirk says:

    @Jim White: Jim,

    1) the E3 wouldn’t be an escort. When it flies it gets escorts and operates at the edges of the conflict. It is too specialized, too critical, to fly close to targets.

    2) the E3 is based on a Boeing 707. “Based on” is no longer itself conventional. It’s a design that uses the 707 as starting point, not just a 707 with parts bolted on. They are significantly more expensive and we have surprisingly few in inventory.

    No, the AWACS is not conventional and would not be in this position.

    It’s somewhat possible that the other aircraft was an EW craft – a Growler or Prowler (EA-18G or EA-6B). It’s much more of a tactical asset (vice the E3’s operational and even strategic role). It is still an unusual mission for it to fly escort.

    On the other hand, flying escort for a drone is unusual already, and making one an EW to try and figure out if that’s what Iran’s doing does make some sense of the escort. Otherwise it’s what Snarki child of Loki noted already; cutting into the whole reason and purpose of drones.

  5. Arbusto says:

    Seems reasonable the second aircraft had a suppression of enemy air defenses(SEAD) and other signal detection equipment maybe in an attempt to figure what technology the Iranians used to detect and capture our equipment.

    [W]e reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces

    Will our UAV escorts overfly Iranian airspace to protect or provoke? Are we escalating the Iranian drama?

  6. JTMinIA says:

    My theory is that the escorts are only half there to protect the drone. They are also there to shoot down the drone if it is hacked. The reason that the DoD is going on about the prior incidents is to make the MSM focus on the first half, as well as rile up the Great Unwashed in preparation of Gulf War III. It’s a smokescreen to keep people from thinking about the hacking of the drones and their subsequent delivery to China.

  7. TG says:

    For the Iranians have claimed to have captured a drone, have they not? Those damned Persians, never noticing the empire is now ours.

  8. Opal jones says:

    I’m rooting for Iran to take those fucking things out of commission.

    The strategy of the powerful US is to fuck with the weak until they do something back, then use it as an excuse to destroy them. Basic schoolyard bullying. Cowards.

  9. f l grossmann says:

    Following Snarki, child of Loki’s comments, didn’t bin Laden (when he was alive–both times it appears) advise anti-US movements to concentrate, not on military superiority, but on making any US action more expensive than it need be. Two escorts per drone seems to fit this nicely. Luckily the US is superrich (?) so can afford these games by cutting a few VA benefits, so aid to health care, foreign aide…

  10. traveler says:

    Hey guys, when the US governement will start killing union leaders, political opponents or even your unruly teenagers, with drones, where will you be?

  11. liveload says:

    I said years ago that drones were the Stukas of the 21st century. Looks like they’re Stukas alright, at least from where I’m sitting. A real opponent exposes them for what they really are. Now with the F35 being too fat, stupid, and slow to take over the reigns, all that’s left is for the Me-110’s to begin escorting the Stukas. Then the Me109’s begin escorting the Me-110’s that are escorting the Stukas.

    Yo dawg, I herd you like escorts…

  12. Caesar_Saladin says:

    I just want photos of the Iranian F-4’s still on active service. They are comparatively ancient airframes, but still one of the most beautiful combat jets to ever take to the skies.

    (Their continued service, though, is a succinct reminder of how wasteful we have been in buying every shiny new jet that comes down the pike. We’ve got F-4’s sitting in the boneyard that- had they been cared for properly- could still be valuable assets in our inventory.)

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