Key point: Iran knows it cannot stand up to the U.S. Air Force.
Back in 2013, Pentagon press secretary George Little said that an Iranian air force F-4 Phantom combat plane attempted to intercept a U.S. MQ-1 Predator drone flying through international airspace near Iran.
As we reported back then, one of the two F-4 Phantom jets — in service in Iran since the Shah — came to about 16 miles from the Predator, but broke off pursuit after two American planes escorting the drone broadcast a warning message.
It was a close call.
The March 2013 episode happened only a few months after a two Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes operated by the Pasdaran (the informal name of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) attempted to shoot down an American MQ-1 flying a routine surveillance flight in international airspace some 16 miles off Iran.
After this attempted interception, the Pentagon decided to escort drones involved in reconnaissance missions with fighter jets: either F-18 Hornets embarked on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, currently in the U.S. Fifth Fleet area of responsibility, or F-22 Raptors like those deployed to Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates.
New details about the latest episode were recently disclosed by Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh at an annual conference of the Air Force Association. On Sept. 17, the general not only confirmed that the escorting fighters were F-22 stealth fighters but also said that: “He [the Raptor pilot] flew under their aircraft [the F-4s] to check out their weapons load without them knowing that he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said ‘you really ought to go home.’”
If the episode went exactly as Welsh described it, it was something more similar to Maverick’s close encounter with Russian MiG-28s in Top Gun than a standard interception.
It would be interesting to know how the Raptors managed to remain in stealth. Did the pilots use radar? Were they vectored by an AWACS? Why didn’t an E-2 — providing Airborne Early Warning in the area — not broadcast the message to dissuade the F-4 from pursuing the drone before the Iranian Phantoms and the U.S. Raptors came close to a potentially dangerous and tense situation?
Anyway, the U.S. pilot scared the Iranian pilots off and saved the drone. A happy ending worthy of an action movie.
(This article by Robert Beckhusen in 2013.)