back to article Airborne killer robot destroys Libyan anti-aircraft missile

In news which will send a cold chill down the necks of fast-jet pilots and air forces around the world, it has been announced that an unmanned "Predator" drone has destroyed a heavy Libyan surface-to-air missile in Tripoli on Sunday. A Tornado GR4 en route to operations over Libya, pictured from a refuelling tanker aircraft. …

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One country this article neglects

Saudi Arabia.

Not nuclear armed (although with all that money, no doubt they'd be able to get one), but with a very sophisticated airforce, an autocratic system atop a vastly unequal society and a penchant for violence.

The fact that it floats on oil keeps it safe, but should that supply be disrupted by domestic insurgency, then all bets are off.

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Hohoho.

But how would the Saudi Airforce fly without British, American and Australian BAe and McDonald Douglas aircrews servicing their 'planes? The Saudi Air Force did nothing in either of the Gulf Wars and are not an effective fighting force without daily intervention by Western contractors.

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Grenade

Too bad...

...this can't become an election topic in Canada. Our latest PM, a.k.a. the lying sack of dung, is busy telling us that we need to buy 65 shiny new F-35s to replace our aging F-18s to the tune of $75M per airplane. Oh and the annual maintenance is a pittance, really!

Of course, when the manufacturers are saying that we won't get them for a dollar under $115M - that is just quibbling over the sticker price.

Sounds to me like we are getting goosed for a product that will be obsolete before the new cockpit smell subsides.

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Stop

One point...

It doesnt state in the NATO missive whether the SA-8 was still manned or not. Whilst your right that the skies above the SAM were "contested" by its very presence, if it was unmanned (much like those tanks that were destroyed by a ground attack Typhoon last week for publicity purposes) then it really is misleading to state that the Predator is now capable of operating in a "contested" airspace.

I would contend pretty strongly that it was unmanned, as there was plenty of time for the SA-8 to identify the Predator (not being stealth), realise it was a target and then launch its missiles at the Predator whilst it waited for the kids to move away. The fact that the Predator controllers felt safe enough to do this strongly implies that they never expected (rightly so) for a missile to be fired at it....

So really this is only a publicity stunt from the Predator controllers, much like the RAF's one last week, to encourage commentators like yourself to write articles like this. Thats not to say i disagree with the main thrust of the article, but i consider it disingenous to consider the Predator to be a "contested" airspace vehicle based on a single attack on a probably unmanned SAM...

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Of course it wasn't manned

The SA8's radar has a 45 kilometer acquisition range and the 9M33 is a solid fuel, supersonic missile, with a 15km range. A predator would have looked like a stationary barn door, to that vehicle, if anyone was paying attention to it.

A boy once flew into the middle of Red Square in a Cessna, but that does not mean that the West could have mounted a mass invasion of the Soviet Union using Cessnas. It just shows that you can have all the radar and missiles in the world, but if your operators are asleep at the controls you have nothing.

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Agree

Anyway, if the Americans would have used an anti-radiation missile to kill an operating Osa, not the Stearman, sorry... Predator with a Hellfire.

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Grenade

Huh?

Just because it didn't fire on NATO aircraft, including the predator, doesn't mean it wasn't manned.

Look, if you were Qaddafi, you wouldn't waste the missile and risk further provoking the Allied forces.

Dictators aren't stupid.

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Agreed

I think that calling Libyan airspace contested is pushing the description somewhat. How many SAMs and Air-to-air sortees have been launched against NATO forces? None that we know of. Hardly contested airspace then, really.

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Grenade

So rather than waste the missile

let it get destroyed?

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Anonymous Coward

Eh?

If I was a megalomaniac terror-sit sponsoring tin-pot dictator who was being bombed back too the stone age by his old-time foes while facing civil war, would I use one of my few remaining SAMs to try to score another propaganda coup, cause dissent in overseas media and discourage further air attacks?

You bet.

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Am I the only one....

...that noted the article title says that a Predator shot down a missile, as opposed to doing a relatively hum-drum task of destroying a stationary ground target (albeit a TELAR vehicle)?

Such sensationalism.

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Joke

what are you suggesting?

That the U.S. Air Force ditch the Lockheed's and Northrup-Grumman's and buy refurbished -172's?

Do you realize how boring that would make the battle scenes?

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Obviously misleading

"the article title says that a Predator shot down a missile"

Must have been a very slow missile as it must have soared so leisurely and slowly towards the Predator while the football game was going on that the drone had time to wait for the game's final whistle before proceeding to shoot the hapless missile down...

From memory, in real life it takes 10 seconds or so for an SA-8 missile to fly from launch to target.

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Heart

Gumby Maxim of the Week

#23 ~ "Dictators aren't stupid"

Whereas some resident drones on this board obviously are, exceedingly so.

Giddy-up, Gumby, that White Man's Burden won't haul itself up the Hindukush ";0))

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Interesting thing about drones

... they tend to level the combat-scape.

In "the good old days" air superiority required the deployment of many aircraft: none of which cost less than a small countries GDP to buy, operate and eventually crash. Even without the problems of getting someone to train up your pilots, without asking awkward questions like "well why would you want to fly a combat mission over Paris?"

In the age of videogame warfare, where all the nasty, shooty stuff is done by disposable flying robots that come free when you have enough clubcard points, the balance changes. Now every despot, along with the good guys (if there are any good guys, any more) can have a try at building their very own flying robot. Better yet, it's not the end of the world if you crash a few during testing and training. Hell! if a country like Israel (which doesn't have a drop of oil to its name) can develop some world class drones - albeit with some surreptitious outside help, then it shouldn't be too tricky for any other country that can muster a few engineering graduates to have a bash, too.

In fact, one could easiily see a niche market for small and cheap flying robots. Maybe just a couple of feet big. Just large enough to propel an armour-piercing nosecone through the bullet resistant glass of an industrialist or politician's vehicle, if that person was dumb or unlucky enough to have offended said despot, despot's family or deity. With such a small drone, moving it into the country of your choice shouldn't be too difficult and I'm sure the control systems could be made to look like perfectly ordinary spying equipment - the sort that goes through diplomatic channels every day.

Maybe, once we get to the point where any decision maker of any significance can be "reached" at will, they'll all start to see the light and start making sensible decisions for the greater good. (OK, you can dream). At that point these flying robots may, accidentally, become a force for democracy and liberation rather than a way of raining down detached and anonymous death on a location that your unreliable intelligence though might just be a likely target.

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Which is why......

Our brave boys in blue are interested in them as well, cheaper than a helicopter, but sadly no air to ground armaments for the speeding Essex wide boy.

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Happy

PARIS2

"In fact, one could easiily see a niche market for small and cheap flying robots. Maybe just a couple of feet big. "

The revolution starts here (and it's Vulture shaped)!

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Ahem...

Italy paid $63 million for two MQ-9 drones and associated paraphenalia. That's a lot of Clubcard points.

Yes, Iran had a go a developing its own flying robot - the end result wasn't very convincing, frankly.

"A country like Israel"? There aren't many countries that have a defence industry quite so well developed as Israel's. Being surrounded by unfriendly neighbours can do wonders for technological progress.

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I see.

So when RAF jets kill tanks which happen to be stationary, the tanks are assumed to be unmanned and non-functional, thus proving that jets are rubbish, yet when a Predator attacks an unmanned non-active missile that makes it the best thing since sliced bread. Double standard, much? Also, calling the skies over Libya "contested" is highly disingenuous; somewhat akin to calling Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in '35 an even match.

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How 'bout

Remote control tanks, unmanned etc. or indeed snipers.

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Hmm

Are we sure that the 'civilians' playing football weren't the crew?

Since no facts say they weren't it's another viewpoint to consider.

wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SA-8_Gecko) says that the system is designed for attacking jets and helicopters - maybe a predator is a little too small for it to be bothered with?

In any case I wonder how long it will be before our new aircraft carriers are converted to carry drones rather than jets, and for them to be controlled locally rather than from thousands of miles away.

Makes you think.

ttfn

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OTOH

Evidently from the presence of the footballers in the narrative, target acquisition was visual. So the footballers could have been real, but the SA-8 not, i.e. a cardboard cut-out.

For a moment I thought the story would be about a drone destroying a SAM in flight. Silly me.

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Re: OTOH

"For a moment I thought the story would be about a drone destroying a SAM in flight. Silly me."

Same here.... To acquire and shoot down a missile in flight is not easy!

And Osa missiles are command guided - that means the launcher constantly tracks both the target and the missile, computes course corrections and issues commands to the missile. You cannot blind the missile by shining a low-power laser at it (no IR).

In any case, the Predator took its time to hover around, if the SAM was operating they would have detected it and either tried to shoot it down or drive away or just run. But, again, if an Osa would as much as turn its search radar on the whole NATO will be like a disturbed beehive. Not sending a Predator to hang around and see if it can be hit - it'll probably be F-16s on a Wild Weasel mission with anti-radiation missiles and stuff...

Chances are that the crew (if there was a crew) was just chilling out inside (the launcher vehicle has nice air conditioning - not for people but for the electronics)...

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Happy

Drone destroying a SAM in flight

I thought the same too... but in my mind, the "destroying" part was done by flying still and getting hit.

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Contested?

So was the Osa even turned on when it was hit?

Also, they say they've destroyed an SA-8 missile? Just one? So was it just lying around near the football field in its container? The vehicle holds 6 missiles (at least the normal one does - don't know about export mods). I saw nothing in the NATO release mentioning that they've actually got the vehicle itself...

Anyway destroying that launcher (if that's what it was) has no special significance in this case and is no different from, say, destroying a tank, truck or a school bus - an inactive (I bet they did not even have their search antenna raised, let alone spinning) stationary target.

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WTF?

Contested Airspace?

The very meat 'n potatoes of drone territory I'd have thought. After all, when yer drone comes off worst in an argument with a SAM battery, you get to build a new drone. Ho hum.

When yer fully meatsack equipped aircraft comes a cropper, you're out one very expensive aircraft and one very expensive and highly trained pilot (with a replacement time measured in years) to boot.

As far as I can see, the only time that 'contested = sky-jockeys-only' sum applies is when the contesting is being done by other fast-jet pilots, for whom turboprop drones are probably the nearest equivalent to barrels of fish targetting-wise.

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what if you take this line of reasoning a bit farther (?further?)

And ask what BA, United, Aeroflot, Qantas , Delta, etc. are going to do for pilots when there aren't any pilots left in the nations' air forces.

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Score: +1 for Armed forces : 0 civilians

Warfare for fighter pilots has just got a little more sterile. No stabby stabby blood on the hands stuff, getting your mates' brains on your jam sandwich (ala "Fly Away Peter"). Instead the civs get even more ordinance dropped on them: sorry the cross-hairs on my monitor obscured the cross on the hospital roof, everyone's green with night vision.

As the Catherine Tremell character in Basic Instinct said: "Somebody has to die, somebody always does" or something to that effect. If its not going to be soldiers its going to be civilians. So now both sides put their soldiers in concrete bunkers and shoot at civilians with their X-Boxes. All that changes are the cliche' excuses that are selected from the Big Black Book of Military Excuses for Generals and Politicians that's been around since before siege weapons were flinging diseased corpses at peasants

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Go

Might want to curb our enthusiasm a bit

While I agree that unmanned drones are increasingly effective and we will be seeing more of them, I would say that reports of the demise of the manned jet are premature (For the record I was a rotorhead so I don't have a direct stake in this fight... at least not yet). In some ways this reminds me of the missile craze of the 1950s and 1960s where the West removed all guns from ships and fighters, only to find that maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all. There are missions that can certainly be carried out more effectively by drones or missiles--deep strikes on fixed targets, SAM suppression, etc. However, there are missions (close air support and search and rescue come to mind for starters) where having a live pilot on scene who can get a full picture of the situation with no comm lag or limited field of view from a camera will remain critical for the foreseeable future. So, realistically, any commander worth his salt will want both manned and unmanned aircraft so he can select whatever is most appropriate for the mission.

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agree

Frankly a ton or more of high explosive shell dropped 25 miles or so away from a large boat (like HMS Belfast) is a massive amount cheaper than a missile, and I suspect pretty damned useful. Its a blunt instrument, not precision, not stunningly efficient, but dirt cheap and if I was sitting in my little bunker it would be as painful and worrying as cruise missiles. I don't know what shells cost - probably around 50-100 quid each, but the cruise missiles are something close to 800,000 each... you get a lot of shells, even a lot of new gun barrels - for the price of a missile.

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-1

and a lot of dead civilians too...

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Go

Not as blunt as you think...

Naval gunfire is actually surprisingly accurate, especially if you have airborne spotters (some of the first US drones were flown from the Iowa class battleships for that explicit purpose) and the ability to correct fire gets the target taken out quickly and thoroughly, reducing overall collateral damage.

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Coat

Lewis' argument is flawed.

I suggest that he look at the history of the US air force post vietnam through pre 9/11.

The problem in spending $$$ on R&D in order to keep one's edge over a potential aggressor is that tiny brained politico types (yes one has to have a tiny brain to want to go in to politics), is that they need to see a bunch of shinny new toys implementing all the $$$ spent in order to justify the R&D.

I guess the Chinese aircrafts are behind the US because the US have implemented tighter security controls...

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The reasoning is not strong

I usually find Mr Page's articles extremely interesting, but I think he is distinctly over-egging the argument here. Remote controlled drones are useful against an enemy that has a) no credible anti-aircraft systems, b) no effective airforce of its own and [critically] c) no effective electronic warfare capablity. I will explain these points. Drones do not fly high enough or fast enough to be protected against even a rudimentry anti-aircraft capability - they are easily shot down. The SA8 that is cited in this article could not have turned its radar systems on because then it would have been attacked by fast jets with anti-radar weapons. You also would not waste a missile against a drone when heavy machine guns will do the job. This connects to the second point, drones cannot move quickly or be particuarlly agile because they must be aerodynamically stable. This is due to bandwidth and cost issues. If the drone is agile, it will be aerodynamicaly unstable and the serious computers and sensors necessary to monitor this increase the costs to that of an manned fast jet (the drone is no longer cost effective). Also the bandwidth necessary to communicate with a fast moving drone is massive and the costs of this are extremely high. In addition, there is a communications delay - the faster the drone moves, the more problematic the delay because signals have to be communicated back and forth. This is not a problem wirh turbo props but when the drones start using fast jets - this will be a problem. Unless the drones are operating over short distances (which begs the question - why not use helicopters?) the delays will render them useless against aircraft or even helicopters which will respond quicker. The final point is that any state level adversary will be able to jam the drones. The technology needed to do this is not expensive and can be easily acquired. Mr Page seems to be letting his distaste for the 'fighter mafia' and the defence industry colour his analysis. The manned fighter has a long life yet.

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think ahead...

Current military procurement seems to assume that the technological landscape will stand still. Even the article seems to assume that drones are inevitably flimsy little turboprops. I would be surprised if drones aren't the kings of air superiority shortly after 2020, and yet we are planning to buy F35s in 2018. We should be limiting our investment in new aircraft and putting more into drones and especially drone r&d. The Tanaris program is costing less than two Eurofighters.

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and another thing...

Smithyk, the problems you point to can be solved with a combination of more processing power and bandwidth -- things that gets much cheaper over time -- and more intelligence on the drone end rather than groundside.

Bear in mind that what we're calling 'drones' aren't, in the traditional sense, drones: they fly themselves while the 'pilot' on the ground gives guidance. Shortly they'll be able to complete missions from start to end without human input.

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Black Helicopters

huh

"BAE Systems plc...still wields huge and inexplicable clout "

Yes, it's completely inexplicable why BAe would wield influence out of proportion to its genuine merits.

http://www.fcpablog.com/blog/2010/3/1/bae-pleads-guilty.html

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Terminator

Hot robot-on-robot action!

This is what I pay my taxes for!

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Grenade

The guy in the photo

It's unclear whether the information in the article's ALT tags is written by Lewis or taken from the metadata in the source photographs, whatever their origin.

Either way the guy in the second photo has an unusually spelled name, and just 60 seconds on Google has thrown up his LinkedIn profile (with 232 connections), Twitter account (9 followers) and Facebook page (274 friends and family) along with a handful of professional and news pages detailing his expertise both in UAV operations and as a Tornado pilot.

Maybe I'm too old-school and the nature of privacy, security and warfare has changed too radically for me, but if I spent my working hours blowing large holes in various bits of the Middle East I'm not sure I'd want quite so much information about me and my loved ones available at the stroke of a mouse. Especially with the asymmetric nature of modern warfare.

Whatever happened to "loose lips"? Or is that level of "need to know" just too difficult to maintain in the modern, all-connected world?

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One thing about 'radio controlled drones'

I don't know the technology used to control these, my guess is that it involves some frequency of radio, maybe even some sort of changing frequency radio system. Surely this could just be jammed by a 'loud' enough source of radio waves? I suspect under these conditions some mk1 eyeballs connected to a bit of grey matter and various meat covered limbs would prove somewhat more effective.

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Yag

Radio ga-ga

Anti-jamming systems are used for decades : basically, you switch the emission and reception frequencies at a ludicrous rate on a predetermined (and usually kept secret) pattern. This method also have the advantage of securing communications (hence the secret pattern)

In order to counter such methods, the opponent have to jam *all* frequencies in the whole radio spectrum - technically difficult, and with the annoying side effect of also jamming own comms.

Perhaps this is what your "changing frequency radio system" was refering to?

Also, those drones use satcom with very directional antennas, making them even more difficult to jam.

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Maybe we need a minister of defence that knows something about defence?

You are basically right, destroying the Harrier fleet and its aircraft carrier was certainly the most stupid option, Typhoon is supposedly better than the Tornado, perhaps scrapping the Tornado would have been the better option (after all the Harrier can defend the fleet and take off when their favourite runway is full of holes - the Tornado can do neither).

Mind you, the largest cost in an airforce is the capital cost of the planes, really maintenance and even training pale into insignificance, so having bought the planes you might as well keep running them, or perhaps chuck them in a nice dry hanger 'just in case'. Certainly the income from the scrap metal merchant won't do more than buy the top dog an extra lunch.

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Tornado <> Typhoon <> Harrier

Typhoon is surely a better fighter than the Tornado ADV, but not a better bomber than the Tornado IDS. "Better" is always a relative term. Better at what? Establishing air superiority? Destroying heavily protected ground targets? The Harrier is "better" if you don't have conventional carrier and need a fleet airplane, but it isn't nor a great fighter nor a great bomber. I would prefer not to be in a Harrier against a Flanker.

There's no "better" airplane - you have to assess what kind of war you may have to fight, and choose the right weapons. UK was lucky to have Spitfires in 1941, and US was lucky not to have Swordfish-like only planes at Midway. Korean War pilot were not happy to encounter "British powered" MiG-15 until F-86 were deployed (and luckily they had something available). Choose the wrong weapons, and you're dead.

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In fairness...

...the main type of torpedo bombers that the US had at Midway were in some respects WORSE than Swordfish - they were mostly TBD Devastators and they were shot down in droves. They had 6 of the new Avengers which were slightly better, but all were afflicted by the inadequacies of the torpedo they were equipped with, which required a long straight run in on the target at no more than 100 feet and no more than about 115mph, or the weapon would break up when dropped. Out of 41 TBDs deployed, they lost 35 (they lost 5 out of the 6 Avengers too).

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Yes, but they had dive bombers

At Midway the torpedo attack was a disaster, because both the Devastator and torpedo quality. But luckily the US Navy had also dive bombers, and won. If they had only torpedo bombers, they would have lost the battle. There was a time when torpedoes looked a better weapon than bombs agains ships, but one thing is attacking the Bismark with no air protection, another attacking Japanese carriers heavily protected by fast and manoeuvrable fighters.

Preparing for the previous war is always the worst decision, while understanding what kind of weapons the next one requires is not an easy task - letting small skirmish and simulations to guide decisions is always very risky. You may find yourself in a conflict with the wrong weapons. The more versatile a weapon is, the more it can adapt to different scenarios. Weapon systems designed with only one scenario in mind can be almost useless if it doesn't materialize.

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No air protection...?

Bismarck, true. Taranto? No. Worth noting that the low level torpedo attacks had one beneficial effect at Midway; they pulled all the air cover to low level, so the Dauntlesses had a pretty clear run in.

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Fascinating

I find this Predator strike to be both fascinating and thought provoking.

It looks to me like it is an incredibly stable platform from which to launch a weapon. It is slow enough and low enough to enable the operator to see well and seems to have weapons that are quite precise. The craft is a bit slow and cumbersome in 'real' contested airspace. But when the air defence is weak, why on earth would you use manned assets?

I sometimes wonder, if you had a large force of these aircraft and they are equipped with air to air, how would you go if you approached a 'hot' airspace, let go of the air to airs when the AWACS says 'go', turn around and run away. When I say a large force I am meaning upwards of 100 of the blighters.

If I was defending that airspace, I think I'd cut and run. But, maybe that's why I'm not a fighter pilot.

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Air-to-air is different from air-to-ground

Ground targets are not as fast and evasive as air target. To fire an AA missile with a decent hope of success, you need to move and put yourself in a good firing position - unlike in movies, even missiles needs to obey to the laws of physics and will fail if not properly launched.

Actual drones may be too slow and not enough manoeuvrable to achieve that against actual fighters. Maybe a large number of drones armed with a couple of AA missiles (but radar self guided missiles are large and heavy) could be used to "saturate" an airspace together with more powerful planes in a first strike situation, but until they get closer in performance to actual fighters they could hardly be used to establish and mantain air superiority in a given space alone.

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WTF?

Don't infer conclusion by a weak opponent.

I would like to see Predator/Reaper against the Su-27 family...

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FAIL

Can't help you with Predator vs. Su-27...

But here's a video of what happens when Hermes 450 meets MiG-29:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNpABtIKERg

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