It’s the latest act of aggression from the Iranians in the Gulf although it’s the first time Iranian jets have fired on an unarmed U.S. drone, said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman.
According to the Pentagon’s account, the Predator was on a routine surveillance mission at about 4:50 a.m. EST over the Gulf on Nov. 1 and was operating at a distance of about 16 miles off the Iranian coastline when two of Iran’s aging, Soviet- made Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes approached.
At least one of the single-seat Sukhois fired “multiple rounds” at the Predator from its wing-mounted, twin-barrel, 30mm AQ-17A 30mm mini-gun, but missed its target. The slow-moving Predator moved further off the coastline but the Sukhois pursued and one of them fired and missed again, Pentagon officials said.
The Predator “was not hit” and the drone returned safely to its ground base in the region, Little said. He would not comment on where the drone was operating from, but it has been widely reported that the U.S. maintains major facilities at the Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates. The CIA is also known to operate drones from Al Dhafra.
The Sukhois are primarily ground attack aircraft and its pilots may have been inexperienced at air-to-air gunnery, which could explain why they missed, a U.S. military official said. The Sukhois may only have been firing warning shots in the two passes as the drone, the official said, but Little said “our working assumption is that they fired to take it down” and missed.
“We will continue to fly surveillance flights” outside Iran’s 12-mile airspace limit over the Gulf, where the U.S. has been maintaining a two carrier presence, Little said. “Our aircraft was never in Iranian airspace” in the Nov. 1 incident, Little said.
The issue of why the Pentagon is only now informing the public was raised with Little who explained he was announcing the event only after individuals had illegally leaked classified reports of the attack to the press. CNN’s Barbara Starr first reported the story at 2 p.m. Thursday, the exact time Little’s press conference started in the Pentagon.
Many Republicans will suspect the Obama administration kept the attack secret to protect the president just days before the election. Republican lawmakers had already cried foul over what details the Obama administration released following the Benghazi attack that killed a U.S. Ambassador.
“We don’t typically comment on classified surveillance missions,”Little said. “Someone apparently disclosed this,” Little said, which was why the Pentagon was now choosing to comment.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quickly notified when the Sukhois opened fire and the White House was also informed, Little said. The U.S. chose not to respond but a complaint was filed with Iran through Swiss diplomats in Tehran, Little said.
“We will continue to fly surveillance flights” outside Iran’s 12-mile airspace limit over the Gulf, where the U.S. has been maintaining a two carrier presence, Little said.
“Our aircraft was never in Iranian airspace” in the Nov. 1 incident, Little said.
— Richard Sisk contributed to this report.