A Pentagon official confirmed the U.S. military lost contact with an unarmed Predator drone Tuesday while it was flying above northwestern Syria, but could not corroborate reports that the aircraft was shot down by President Bashar Assad’s air defenses.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said that U.S. forces lost contact with the drone about 1:40 p.m. Eastern time and that the reason for its disappearance was being investigated.
The incident marks the first time a U.S. aircraft has gone down since President Obama authorized airstrikes against Islamic State militants in the summer. Since then, Predator drones have been flying daily missions above Iraq and Syria.
Predators are flown from bases across the globe, but the military official would not discuss where the U.S. aircraft was being controlled from or where it was based before they lost contact with it.
Earlier Tuesday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said the country’s air defenses had brought down a U.S. surveillance plane in the coastal province of Latakia.
“We have no information to corroborate press reports that the aircraft was shot down,” the U.S. official said. “We are looking into the incident and will provide more details when available.”
Syria maintains an extensive network of Soviet-era radar and air defense installations, including antiaircraft batteries, but Pentagon officials repeatedly said that the country’s military has not tried to engage or track U.S. and Arab warplanes entering its airspace. U.S. commanders have described the Syrian response as “a passive radar” that did not pose a threat.
By midday Tuesday, photos of what appeared to be a crashed Predator drone appeared across Twitter, including on the Syrian Arab News Agency’s account.
The MQ-1 Predator drone is a propeller-driven nonstealthy aircraft that provides U.S. military commanders a video stream of what’s happening on the ground in real time. It was first flown by the Air Force in 1995 and is made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in the San Diego area.
Predator drones -- and later Reaper drones -- have become a centerpiece technology for the U.S. government in counter-terrorism operations, but design and system problems have nagged them.
Over the years, dozens of the drones have crashed because of pilot mistakes, technology failures and inclement weather.
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