The incident was the dawn of unmanned air-to-air combat.
A U.S. Reaper drone shot down another with a missile, the Air Force revealed yesterday. The incident, which took place last year and involved an unmanned target drone, was the first case of a drone shooting down another another aircraft. The event ism a watershed moment in the history of aerial warfare, as unmanned aircraft begin to muscle in on air-to-air combat—previously the exclusive domain of manned aircraft.
Colonel Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, revealed the incident in an interview with Military.com. The 432nd “Hunters” Wing is based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada and is responsible for “unmanned precision attack and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions…in support of overseas contingency operations”.
According to Military.com, a MQ-9 Reaper launched a infrared guided air-to-air missile against a “maneuvering target,” a smaller target drone. The missile scored a direct hit. The Air Force regularly shoots down target drones, but this is the first time an unmanned aircraft has shot down another aircraft.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a bigger, more heavily armed version of the original MQ-1 Predatordrone. The Reaper can typically carry four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and two 500-pound laser or GPS-guided bombs.
U.S. military use of unmanned drones exploded in the post-9/11 era, with the uncrewed craft taking on reconnaissance and later precision ground attack missions. Although expanding their mission into the world of air-to-air combat was inevitable and faced no serious technical challenges, it took a while for a drone to shoot down another aircraft.
This was not, however, the first instance of an unmanned drone involved in air-to-air combat. Several military drones have been shot down over the past 16 years, starting with a 2002 incident in which a Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a Predator drone. In February 2018, the Israeli Air Force shot down a drone belonging to Hezbollah. Here’s an incident from 2008, when a Russian Aerospace Force MiG-29 shot down a Georgian drone:
The air-to-air missile carried by the Reaper drone was likely a FIM-92 Stinger missile. Originally designed as a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, Stinger was adapted into a potent short-range air-to-air weapon.
Reapers downing small unmanned drones is admittedly a long way from a futuristic vision of fleets of unmanned jet fighters, but the November incident was the first step. Unmanned air-to-air combat is inevitable and could be a regular mission sooner than most people think: The Pentagon is increasingly nervous about the prospect of enemy drones on the battlefield. Rather than task high-end F-35 fighters with the mission, drones like the Reaper could fight their own air-to-air battles, shooting down surveillance enemy drones with Stinger missiles.