An MQ-9 Reaper UAV taxies after landing at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. US, Iranian and Iraqi unmanned vehicles share airspace over Iraqi skies. (Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson / US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Despite a years-long history of intermittently sniping at one another’s drones in the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf, the United States and Iran have for the most part avoided each other in the air.
But with the US now flying about 50 missions a day over Iraq and a dedicated Iranian drone and signals intelligence presence having been established in Baghdad, the two rivals find themselves overtly sharing the same airspace, even while denying any coordination or contact.
Of course, Iraq is a big place, and the prospect of two aircraft bumping into one another is remote. But given the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach the two countries have taken toward one another’s unmanned aerial assets, the possibility for another volley exists in the long-running, if rather sleepy, drone war.
We can date the first shot in this conflict to February 2009, when an American F-16 downed an Iranian drone almost on top of a small US combat outpost in eastern Iraq.
In that mostly forgotten episode, the Iranian aircraft had been flying in Iraqi airspace for about 70 minutes trailed by two American aircraft before being shot out of the sky.
“This was not an accident on the part of the Iranians,” the Pentagon said in a March 2009 release. “The [drone] was in Iraqi airspace for nearly one hour and 10 minutes and well inside Iraqi territory before it was engaged.”
According to a US Army after action report obtained and published by Wikileaks, the wingspan of the drone was 20 feet; it was 4.5 feet high and 14 feet long, with “Garmin GPS beacons on tail. Motor is aero flash systems, Chicago, IL.”
On the other side of the ledger, in December 2011, Iran claimed to have shot down the secretive American RQ-170 Sentinel, which it said had strayed into Iranian airspace near the Afghan border. While American officials would only admit that operators had lost contact with the aircraft, the Iranians paraded a mockup of the aircraft for the global media, and claimed to have reverse-engineered parts of its mission package.
And in November 2012, two Iranian Su-25 fighters made repeated passes at a US Predator drone flying over the Arabian Gulf — with the drone’s cameras picking up the trails of bullets that flew past it — but were unable to bring it down.
“We are aware of the reports that Iran is flying unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq,” Pentagon spokesperson CDR Elissa Smith said. “There are a variety of aircraft, manned and unmanned, flying with different flight parameters in the airspace over Iraq, and the Iraqi government is deconflicting the air space.”
Still, some analysts are skeptical that the Iraq mission will bring US-Iranian fireworks.
“I’d be surprised if an Iranian drone and a US drone had crossed paths” in Iraq, said Michael Knights, a specialist in the military capabilities of Iraq and Iran at the Washington Institute.
“Even in the pre-2011 period, Iranian drones were commonly working up to 50 kilometers west of the Iranian border,” he continued. “They went much deeper sometimes, typically to Camp Ashraf, the Mojaheddin-e Khalq [MeK, Iranian opposition] camp. In fact, pre-2003 the Iranians ran a lot of UAVs to Ashraf and other MeK camps to do [battle damage assessments] on air strikes and artillery strikes.”
In addition to American and Iranian drones, over the past year the US has also sold Iraq 48 Raven and 10 ScanEagle drones.
Even with American, Iranian and Iraqi platforms searching for Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi airspace “is not congested so much as it is confused,” said Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War.
The ability of Iraqi air traffic controllers to keep an eye on their airspace is extremely limited, as their equipment and training is still in its formative stages and there is little commercial air traffic over Iraq.
Baghdad International Airport is still only handling about 20 takeoffs and landings a day, for example, some of which are Iranian Ilyushin-76 cargo aircraft loaded with military gear headed to resupply the Assad regime in Damascus, Syria.
But the beefed-up American presence should be filling in some of the gaps, at least from an American perspective. “At any given time you’ve got at least two Aegis-class destroyers in the Persian Gulf, equipped with long-range, high-resolution, multiple frequency radars that can provide some air cover” for US aircraft, Harmer said.
The USS George H.W. Bush in the gulf is also likely launching E2 Hawkeyes orbiting at 30,000 feet to give those pilots extra situational awareness.
But that surveillance cuts both ways.
It has been reported that the Iranians have set up an operations center at Rasheed Air Base in Baghdad from which they are flying a small number of surveillance drones along with a signals intelligence unit.
The Ababil drone is one of the most likely candidates to fly over Iraq. It has been used by Hezbollah over Israel and Lebanon, and in 2012 Syrian rebels captured one that they claimed to have shot down. The Israelis also shot down an armed Ababil in 2006 near Haifa.
Despite this, Harmer said the presence of US radar and intelligence might force the Iranians to shy away from showing their most sophisticated assets for fear of them falling into US or Islamic State hands.
“I’m skeptical about their technological capabilities,” Harmer added. “The Iranians are trying to minimize the public knowledge of what they’re doing,” and they’re not talking to anybody.
But again, both sides are likely playing the same game. “The Iranians have put themselves into the perfect intelligence-gathering situation” in Iraq, he said, with intelligence assets working on the ground with the blessing of the Baghdad government, and most likely trying to pick up everything they can on not only the Islamic State, but US operations and platforms as well. ■