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F-16I and Saeghe shoot-down – an Iranian propaganda disaster?

Photo: Keyvan Tavakkoli

 

In the early hours of February 10, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Air and Space Force (IRGCASF) Saeghe UAV – a reverse-engineered version of the US-made RQ-170 – was intercepted and shot down by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) deep inside Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, Babak Taghvaee reports.

According to unnamed sources within the IRGCASF, this was the first combat mission for the UAV in question. The IRGC had apparently planned to show video footage recorded during its first combat mission on Iranian state media hours before propaganda rallies marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, planned for February 11.

The decision to launch a first surveillance mission by a Saeghe UAV reportedly came from high-ranking IRGC commanders. The drone was one of 12 examples delivered to the IRGCASF since October 2016. However, the Saeghe UAV has limited reconnaissance capability in comparison with more conventional IRGCASF UAVs such as the Ababil-3, Mohajer-4, Sadegh and Shahed-129. Indeed, there are even doubts that the Saeghe actually carries any form of surveillance camera.

Minutes after infiltration of the Saeghe UAV into Israel’s airspace, it was detected by Israeli Air Force (IAF) early warning radars. Because of its low radar cross-section and low infrared signature, as well as its small size, the decisions was taken to scramble an AH-64D Saraf from 113 Squadron. The attack helicopter was to shoot down the drone down using an AGM-114K Hellfire missile. But this was just the beginning of a more complex chain of events.

The Saeghe UAV unveiling ceremony at the Shahed Aerospace Industries facility in October 2016.

Syrian participation

The Saeghe UAV’s first combat mission over the Golan was conducted in conjunction with the Syrian Air Defence Force (SyADF), which had planned to shoot down one or more IAF jets that might attempt to attack the IRGC’s drone command-and-control (C2) centres at Mezzeh military airport near Damascus, as well as at T4 air base from where the Saeghe drone was launched.

The Israel Defense Forces reacted in the way that the SyADF and IRGC had expected, and launched air strikes against 12 targets including three SyADF batteries and four IRGC bases, including a drone C2 centre. The SyADF  quickly launched between 15 and 23 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) which included at least three S-125s (SA-3 Goa), six S-200s (SA-5 Gammon) and six 57E6s from Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) systems. Evidence of missile wreckage that came down in Mount Hermon, Lebanon also revealed that at least one missile from a mobile Kvadrat (SA-6 Gainful) SAM system was launched, too.

Wreckage of an SA-6 that was launched against the IAF F-16I.

The IAF air strike involved three F-16I Sufa jets, most likely from 107 Squadron based at Hatzerim. At least two of the missiles launched by the SyADF hit one of the F-16Is, which resulted in it crashing over Galilee, in the north of Israel. Both crew ejected but the pilot suffered severe injuries due to an ejection at low altitude after the aircraft had stalled and was spinning. An IAF S-65 Yasur-2020 helicopter was launched on a search and rescue mission, recovering both crew and transporting the injured pilot to hospital.

Parts of an S-125 missile that landed in the Irbid region, northern Jordan.

In retaliation for the F-16I loss, the IAF conducted a second wave of air strikes against six Syrian Arab Army and SyADF targets simultaneously, using F-16I and F-15I fighters. The targets were:

  • Syrian Arab Army 175th Missile and Artillery Regiment base, north of Izra, Daraa
  • SyADF 89th Air Defence Regiment base at Jabab, near Daraa
  • Syrian Arab Army ballistic missile base at Al-Kiswah, Damascus suburbs, where IRGC personnel are also present
  • 104th Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard in the Ad Durayj area in the countryside of Damascus
  • SyADF 150th Regiment, north of Aleqain, Daraa
  • SyADF 13th Brigade, north of Ad Dimas, northwest of Damascus

At least one IAI Harop (or IAI Harpy 2) attack drone was used as an anti-radiation weapon to target the IRGC drone C2 facility at T4 air base.

Iranian drone developments

Five days before this incident, during an official ceremony at the Iranian Defense Industries Organization facilities in Lavizan, Tehran on February 5, ten Mohajer-6 UCAVs were handed over to the IRGC Ground Force. This UCAV represents the latest generation of the Mohajer family, designed by the Ghods Aerospace Industries Company and manufactured by IAMI since 1981. The Mohajer-6 can carry two Qaem IR/TV-guided bombs, an improved and modernised variant of the Sadid smart bomb. The Mohajer-6 has a combat radius of 350km.

The Mohajer-6 UCAV handover ceremony on February 5. Ali Naderi

The first combat mission for the Saeghe UAV was planned as another propaganda effort after the handover ceremony for the first series-produced Mohajer-6 UCAVs. However, it ended with the death of at least five IRGCASF drone controllers and pilots at the IRGCASF’s drone C2 centre as well as the destruction of entire batteries of air defence systems belonging to the SyADF in the south of Syria. Contrary to some claims, the Saeghe UAV isn’t as capable as more conventional and non-stealthy UAV/UCAVs operated by the IRGCASF for surveillance missions. Its limited range, lack of satellite communication and control systems and low service ceiling make it vulnerable to even the IAF’s AH-64D attack helicopters.

 

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