How Did Two U.S. Military Drones Collide Over Syria?
They were likely keeping tabs on remnants of the Islamic State. So what happened?
• Two U.S. military drones were involved in a collision above Idlib, Syria.
• The Pentagon would not confirm the types of drones involved, but they were likely MQ-9 Reapers.
• The drones were probably keeping tabs on remnants of the militant Islamic State organization.
Two U.S. military drones were lost today high in the skies over Syria. According to a U.S. official, the drones collided with each other. While there is speculation at least one of the drones was shot down, that appears unfounded for now.
The drones were likely conducting surveillance in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against the Islamic State.
The incident first came to light on social media, when video emerged from the Middle East of an aircraft on fire plummeting to Earth. Reports indicated that one or two unmanned drones were shot down over Idlib, Syria and footage circulated of burning aircraft debris on the ground.
The nature of social media, where old footage is often recycled as new and a single incident filmed from multiple angles could be presented as multiple incidents, made confirmation that anything at all had happened difficult. In the tweet below, for example, footage of the crashing American drone is represented as likely a Russian drone shot down by Turkish forces.
Military Times quotes an unnamed U.S. defense official that did not identify the type of drones that collided, but they were likely MQ-9 Reapers. The U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) use the MQ-9 to locate, identify, and track enemy forces, including individual leaders, then carry out attacks using onboard laser guided bombs or Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
The CIA has even fielded a modified Hellfire missile, the Hellfire R9X, that trades an explosive warhead for sword-like, stainless steel blades designed to target individual people. A MQ-9 Reaper drone was alsoused to assassinate Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.
It’s not clear how the two Reapers managed to collide. Remote controlled weapons often reduce the operator’s situational awareness, as the operator can sometimes become fixated on a separate task rather than what is going on around his or her drone.
Operating a military uncrewed aerial vehicle is like flying an airplane and watching reality television at the same time. Both drone operators, for example, might have become distracted by the feeds from their Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems, a sensor package that includes an infrared camera capable of tracking targets from 50,000 feet.
Could the incident be the result of unfriendly forces shooting down two U.S. drones simultaneously? It’s possible, but if so, the U.S. military would likely admit the planes were shot down.
The Pentagon acknowledged an August 2019 shoot down of a Reaper over Yemen was the result of Houthi rebels firing on the drone with a SA-6 surface-to-air missile. Extremist groups often record aircraft shoot downs for propaganda purposes, and so far, no such footage has emerged.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a bigger, longer-ranged, and more heavily armed version of the MQ-1 Predator drone. The uncrewed plane typically cruises at 230 miles per hour and has a range of 1,150 miles. Reapers are usually controlled from ground control stations thousands of miles from their operating area, particularly Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The Air Force operates 93 MQ-9 Reapers, each with a unit cost of $20 million.