PENTAGON reports unmanned U.S. plane missing over Iraq; Iraq says it shot it down

Monday, August 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A pilotless U.S. reconnaissance plane failed to return from a mission over southern Iraq on Monday. U.S. officials did not dispute Iraq's claim that it shot down the plane.

The incident underscored the dangers facing U.S. and British pilots who regularly patrol the skies over Iraq and encounter anti-aircraft artillery and other air defense forces almost daily. The Iraqi government considers the patrols illegal and in recent months has developed more effective coordination between its early warning radars and anti-aircraft missiles, heightening the danger to pilots.

In northern Iraq on Monday, U.S. planes attacked an SA-3 surface-to-air missile site near the city of Mosul after taking fire from Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery guns, U.S. military officials said.

Pilotless aircraft capable of transmitting live images to U.S. command posts outside of Iraq are used to supplement air patrols by Air Force F-16s and other manned aircraft in both northern and southern Iraq.

Whether the Air Force drone, known as a Predator, was shot down or crashed due to a technical failure, it was the first American aircraft of any kind to be lost in Iraq since the accidental shootdown of two U.S. Army helicopters by U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters in 1994.

In July an Air Force U-2 surveillance plane was rocked by the concussion from an Iraqi surface-to-air missile. The U.S. plane was not hit but the missile explosion was close enough to be felt by the crew.

U.S. and British forces began monitoring no-fly zones over Iraq a decade ago.

One reason the Pentagon is developing unmanned reconnaissance aircraft like the Predator is to lessen the risk to pilots. During the 1999 NATO bombardment of Kosovo, more than a dozen unmanned U.S. aerial vehicles, including four Predators, crashed or were shot down over hostile territory.

In a brief statement from U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., a spokesman, Col. Rick Thomas, said it was not clear what had happened to the Predator on Monday.

``The aircraft may have crashed or been shot down,'' Thomas said.

The spokesman said U.S. officials are aware that Iraq is trying hard to down a manned aircraft.

``Iraq has enhanced its air defense capabilities,'' Thomas said, ``so there is a risk and we'll take steps to mitigate that risk.''

Iraqi state-run television showed footage of what it claimed was the downed plane reduced to piles of scorched wreckage in the desert. ``U.S. Navy Prop'' was written on one part of the aircraft.

A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Lapan, said it was not possible to determine conclusively from the images shown by Iraqi television whether the wreckage was that of a U.S. aircraft. The reference to ``U.S. Navy Prop'' seemed curious, since the lost Predator is an Air Force plane.

The official Iraqi news agency said a U.S. plane was shot down near the southern city of Basra, 340 miles south of Baghdad. Pentagon officials said the Predator was lost not far from Basra.

American and British aircraft regularly patrol no-fly zones over Iraq to protect Shiite Muslims in the south and Kurds in the north from attacks by government forces. The southern patrols also provide early warning of potential Iraqi military moves toward the Kuwaiti border.

Thomas said there is no plan to attempt to recover the Predator, which was reported lost at 2 a.m. EDT.

``No sensitive technology will be compromised by not recovering the aircraft,'' Thomas said.

The unarmed plane, which is 27 feet long with a wing span of 48 feet, cruises at speeds ranging from 80 to 140 mph at altitudes up to 25,000 feet. It flies slower and lower than the manned aircraft used over Iraq and thus is an easier target for Iraqi gunners.

One U.S. official said operators of the Predator lost communications and radar contact with the aircraft and were not immediately sure why.

The official Iraqi news agency said the plane had flown from a base in Kuwait. U.S. officials would not say where it was based. Manned U.S. aircraft that patrol the skies over southern Iraq are based in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.