As an Iranian F-4 fighter jet trailed an Air Force MQ-1B Predator last month, words of warning came from an unlikely source: pilots of two U.S. fighter jets escorting the unmanned aircraft.
The fighters were protecting a U.S. asset that has become critical to the war in Afghanistan for its ability to monitor and zero in on targets without putting pilots’ lives at risk.
The unmanned Predators flown by the Air Force to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance also are far less expensive than their manned counterparts.
So why would the U.S. military put up two fighters that cost at least $20 million apiece to ensure the safety of a $4 million Predator?
Everything about that event — and others like it — is shielded in operational security, according to U.S. Central Command.
“The decision to escort unmanned aircraft is made on a case-by-case basis depending on the mission, location and intelligence assessment,” said Army Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for CENTCOM.
Taylor declined to say when the flights began or their frequency, citing operational security. However, last November two Iranian Su-25 fighters fired on an unarmed Predator in international waters, firing two separate gun bursts at the drone. The Pentagon did not say whether the Predator was escorted, only that “we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so moving forward.”
CENTCOM did not disclose what assets or bases are being used in the escort flights. Air Force fighters are stationed at nearby bases in Southwest Asia, including F-22 Raptors from the 3rd Wing out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Additionally, the air wing attached to the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis also is deployed to the Navy’s 5th Fleet in the region.
“U.S. military presence supports stability and security throughout the CENTCOM area of responsibility,” Taylor said. “Our presence in international waters and airspace is part of standard operations in the AOR — to include routine surveillance.”
Deploying manned assets to protect unmanned aircraft in the area makes sense, because while the Predators are relatively cheaper than manned fighters, they still cost the nation millions of dollars, a retired Air Force official said. Compared with the MQ-1B price tag of about $4 million, an F-16C costs approximately $20 million, and the newer F-22 is about $143 million.
Showing the muscle of armed, manned aircraft also sends a message to Iranians that the assets will be protected. Iran has previously made high-profile statements about American surveillance aircraft, famously displaying a captured RQ-170 Sentinel that went down near the border with Afghanistan.
“Obviously there is a huge irony, on many levels, to fighter pilots now escorting unmanned drones,” said Peter W. Singer, the director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. “But the reason is not so much about valuing the machine more than the man, but rather about sending a message to the Iranians: Stop messing around with our stuff. For all the shenanigans they might pull around a relatively easy-to-shoot-down drone, the escorts are there to show that we can escalate quickly.”
The high-tech payload carried by Predators and reapers also is something that the U.S. wants to keep close. While Iran could try to clone some of the technology on Reapers and Predators, the larger concern is the possibility of Iran passing the technology along to customers such as China or Russia.
“We wouldn’t want anything falling into their hands,” Singer said.