It is a simple plan.
One conceived in legend by the Greeks around 1260 A.D. The tactic originates from the Seven Military Classics and the masterwork of Sun Tzu, in his Art of War, “…to be skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary”.
Like all warfare, it is brutal, underhanded and lethal. And it is based on a key pillar of ruthless combat: Deception.
The QF-16 pilotless drone is an F-16 multi-role fighter that can carry a pilot, or a passenger, but it does not need to. It is controlled autonomously from a remote flight control center or even from another aircraft.
QF-16 drones are repurposed F-16’s that have been used as a manned fighter, but whose airframe is approaching its maximum hours in restorative maintenance and total flight time. They are about to be permanently grounded, often for spare parts, in a place like Tucson, Arizona’s massive AMARG “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB in the United States.
Most usefully in this novel application the QF-16 appears exactly like any other F-16 combat aircraft. Especially this particular QF-16 and two others like it since it was repainted as a Jordanian F-16A/B Block 20 of #6 Squadron, for the Royal Jordanian Air Force.
This specific QF-16, hastily prepared and shipped into Amman, Jordan, is flying near Raqqa, Syria, the place where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) downed a similar looking manned aircraft flown by a Jordanian pilot, Flight Lieutenant Moaz Youssef al-Kasasbeh. ISIL captured him and burned him alive inside a cage.
The world reaction was shock. The Jordanian reaction was revenge. A brutal, angered, inflamed resolve dating back to the ancient beginnings of warfare.
Jordan has an official reputation as being a western friendly, progressive country in a chaotic Middle East. Their unofficial reputation is one of ruthless cunning. Wars with every neighbor on their borders and centuries of conquest have necessitated this reality. And largely because of this unofficial doctrine, Jordan remains an island in a chaotic and deadly region.
The remotely controlled QF-16 enters Syrian airspace on a mission profile similar to the one flown by Flt Lt Al-Kasasbeh before he was captured by ISIL. It appears to be a strike mission, and in a way, it is. But not in the conventional sense.
While not being flown by the person on board, this aircraft does have a passenger.
The QF-16 is being controlled from a remote, classified location on the ground. It is flown under the close assistance of Jordan’s Dairat al-Mukhabarat al-Ammah, the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate.
Two pilots on the ground fly this QF-16, one a former F-16 pilot, the other skilled in operating remotely piloted reconnaissance drones for the Jordanian Air Force.
The QF-16 remains above 11,000 feet, outside the operational altitude of the Russian-made 9K3A Igla man-portable surface-to-air missile. Jordanian and U.S. intelligence indicates that ISIL has 9K3A Igla anti-aircraft missiles, designated “SA-18 Grouse” by western intelligence. This is the weapons platform some analysts believe may have contributed to the loss of the formerly Belgian, then Jordanian F-16 flown three months earlier by Flight Lieutenant Al-Kasasbeh when he went down over Raqqa.
Upon finding the ISIL anti-aircraft missile crew using high resolution television cameras in its centerline sensor pod, the QF-16 executes an Immelmann turn, looping inverted back on its course, then rolling level and pitching down into a steep dive. Then the QF-16 controllers remotely advance the throttle, accelerating toward the drone’s maximum speed in excess of Mach 2.
The ISIL insurgent SA-18 missile crew sees the Jordanian F-16 dive for the ground and anticipates a perfect missile shot. It is an unbelievable opportunity to down another one of the fighter jets belonging to the western shills that ISIL wishes to destroy. The ISIL anti-aircraft missile crew knows the F-16 may release a weapon, but they do not anticipate what happens next. As they chant incantations while tracking the Jordanian F-16 in the sights of their missile they are unaware the predator has become the prey.
A normal weapons release for an attacking F-16 requires the aircraft to maintain a speed, dive angle and course for precision weapons aiming. The QF-16 drone does not do that. Instead it accelerates toward the ground, gathering speed and breaking the sound barrier. The diving, remotely piloted fighter plane plummets through 10,000 feet as it accelerates toward the ground at a steep dive angle.
Its single passenger sees the ground hurtling up toward the QF-16. But can do nothing.
The SA-18 crew acquires what they believe is an attacking Jordanian F-16 with the nitrogen cooled seeker head in their SA-18 missile. It sounds a shrill homing tone as the missile hisses out of its launch tube on a fiery tail to the customary shouting of the ISIL insurgents.
Math, physics and tactics are already against the ISIL terrorists.
The SA-18 missile has a subsonic top speed of about 700 MPH. The diving QF-16 with its unwilling passenger is hurtling toward earth in a steep dive at over 1400 MPH now. The closure rate is over 2,100 MPH.
An SA-18 uses an indium antimonide target seeker with a delayed impact, blast-fragmentation warhead that weighs less than three pounds. It was originally intended for shooting down American attack helicopters and the sub-sonic American A-10 tank buster. It is not designed to trigger its warhead effectively in a head-on engagement at triple supersonic closure rates.
So, as the QF-16 and its now wide-eyed, tightly restrained passenger plummet through 4,000 feet, still accelerating toward the ground, the SA-18 missile shoots by its right wingtip, begins its fusing sequence, and detonates- over 100 feet behind the QF-16.
The ISIL crew realizes there is an error. Carrying 2,000 pounds of high explosives the QF-16 is on terminal guidance to the now-scurrying ISIL missile team. But it is too late for them.
The desert convulses in a massive explosion as the QF-16 impacts where the missile crew had been. Two 1,000-pound bombs under the wings of the remotely piloted aircraft detonate. A vaulting plume of rock, dust, sand and the fine particles of the ISIL prisoner strapped unwillingly into the cockpit of the QF-16 shoot skyward as an earthquake shockwave travels away from the impact at the speed of sound.
The Jordanians have leveled the score and begin to extract a time-honored convention in Middle Eastern conflict: revenge.
There is no official mention of the use of three QF-16 drones as decoys to attract ISIL missile crews into the open and kill them. There is certainly no disclosure that the Jordanians filled the cockpits of the QF-16’s with captive ISIL prisoners, returning them, albeit reduced to their basic molecules, to their terrorist origins. But the QF-16 strikes open a wave of further airstrikes launched from Jordan and supported by an international coalition to route ISIL, its training facilities and any support infrastructure.
And in a dramatic turn of doctrine coalition special operations forces drop deep into ISIL territory to conduct raids, eliminate ISIL personnel and destroy their shadowy infrastructure. Even American B-2’s join the fray as they deliver precision-guided munitions designated by the Jordanian and coalition special operations teams operating inside formerly ISIL held territory.
Days later during a classified Jordanian briefing for U.S. intelligence officials on the first wave of QF-16 drone strikes on the ISIL anti-aircraft teams one American official is stunned that the Jordanians actually placed ISIL prisoners inside the three QF-16 drones for the first wave of attacks. The Jordanians replied, “You are forgetting what they did to our pilot, and we believe there is an eye taken for an eye taken.”
[Note: This story is fiction inspired by current headlines.]