An MQ-1 Predator was lost Tuesday while flying over northwest Syria, according to a Ddefense official.
Syria's official news agency claimed that the drone ad been was shot down, but the Ddefense official was unable to say exactly how the unmanned aircraft had crashed.
The Air Force is in the process of phasing out Predators in favor of the newer MQ-9 Reaper. The service's proposed budget for fiscal 2016 would raise the number of Reaper combat air patrols from 55 to 60 within a 24-hour period while at the same time lowering the number of combat air patrols that Predators fly from 10 to five per day.
Reapers can carry eight times the payload of Predators and armed with a mixture of Hellfire missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or smart bombs, said Benjamin Newell, a spokesman for Air Combat Command.
"MQ-9 is also equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar," Newell said in a Feb. 12 email to Air Force Times. "MQ-9 has one-and-a-half the range of an MQ-1, can cruise nearly three times as fast and carries six times more fuel."
The Air Force hopes to retrain about 60 Predator pilots to fly Reapers next fiscal year, he said.
But Air Force officials have long warned that the current generation of remotely piloted aircraft cannot survive airspace that is defended by enemy aircraft and ever-more sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.
A Predator armed with a Stinger reportedly got into a brief dogfight with at an Iraqi plane in 2003 — and lost.
In 2013, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command said that remotely piloted aircraft sometimes needed to be protected by fighter escorts. That September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh jokingly recounted one incident in which an F-22 pilot warned off two Iranian F-4s that were trying to intercept an unmanned aircraft over the Persian Gulf.
"After he rejoined on them, flew underneath their aircraft to check out their weapons load without them knowing he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said, 'You really ought to go home," Welsh said on Sept. 17, 2013, at the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference.
But Gen. Mike Hostage, then head of Air Combat Command, was much more serious when he told reporters at the same conference that Predators and Reapers are "useless" in contested airspace, Foreign Policy reported.
"Today … I couldn't put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it," Foreign Policy quoted Hostage as saying on Sept. 19, 2013.