Was A Saudi Typhoon Jet Actually Shot Down In Yemen? [Opinion]

STR / AP

This weekend, Yemeni news outlets and some international websites, among them the Aviationist, reported the downing of a Saudi Typhoon jet fighter by the Houti militias in Yemen. The incident supposedly happened last Friday, October 27, but there is no official confirmation.

According to Yemeni Press, the fighter was flying over the capital, Sana’a, when it was shot down by a soil-to-air missile operated by the militias. The Saudi military hasn’t commented on the issue, but Saudi sources seem to believe this information to be no more than propaganda.

Interestingly enough, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone was indeed shot down over Sana’a on October 1, and there is video evidence of the event. Last month, the Saudis also admitted to have lost a Typhoon jet over Yemen during a close air support mission, reportedly due to a technical malfunction.

The last two months have not been kind to the Eurofighter Typhoon. On September 24, an Italian machine crashed in the Mediterranean Sea during an airshow. Some weeks later, on October 12, a Spanish unit crashed near Albacete, Spain, when returning to base after a military parade.

The respective pilots died in all three instances.

If this downing indeed happened, this would make it the fourth loss of the type in less than two months.

Created by a consortium of European nations consisting of Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the Eurofighter Typhoon was developed to be a prime air superiority fighter able to compete with the late Soviet types, like the Mikoyan MiG-29 or the Sukhoi Su-27.

In Europe, it is also operated by Austria, although this small nation is currently seeking a replacement due to the high operational costs.

The Typhoon went on to become a successful export to the Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia acquiring 72 units. Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar have also ordered several airplanes for their respective air forces. Other nations, like Belgium, Canada, Poland, and Vietnam, have also shown interest in the type.

Since its entry into service, in 2003, the Typhoon has taken part in several conflicts and military deployments across the world.

Typhoon fighters intercepted Russian aircraft over the North Sea, and in the Baltic region during the Baltic Air Policing deployments.

In 2011, the type was also present in the campaign against Gadhafi in Libya. In 2015, the Saudi Typhoons entered combat when the Saudi-led coalition started the campaign over Yemen.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen was a response to Houti militias taking control of Sana’a. Given that this faction is supported by Iran, this was seen as an attempt of Tehran to encircle Riyadh, thus prompting the latter into action.

Although there was the expectation that the intervention would be short and decisive, the campaign has lasted to this day. The Houti militias proved to be more resilient than expected, in spite of Riyadh’s overwhelming firepower.

Two German Eurofighter Typhoons prepare to take off during a visit from Chancellor Merkel in 2016.
The Typhoon is a quintessential example of what is usually described as the 4.5 generation of fighter jets. [Image by Martin Meissner/AP Images] Martin Meissner / AP

Although the militias are not as well equipped as the Saudis, they are reportedly supplied by the Iranians and have shown to be able to surprise their enemies and deploy some advanced light weaponry. This includes shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.

The Houtis even managed to shoot down coalition aircraft in the past, like a Moroccan F-16 fighter or a Saudi AH-64 Apache. But in both instances, they were also able to show the wreckage.

Modern aircraft tend to fly at high altitudes, which places them outside the nominal range of such weapons. However, some missions may require them to operate at lower altitudes, which makes them vulnerable to such weapons.

The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 shows a recent example of this reality. Such small shoulder-launched missiles were capable of shooting down aircraft like the massive Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber and even smaller fast types like the Sukhoi Su-24.

Contrary to these Russian aircraft, though, the Typhoon is touted as featuring some of the best counter-measures equipped on a fighter jet. Again, even the most advanced modern technology can be defeated by tactics and counter-measures, hence why training and maneuvering are still an integral part of air combat doctrine.

This relates to a similar situation that also happened recently in the Middle East.

One of the new Lockheed-Martin F-35 stealth fighters provided to Israel by the U.S. has reportedly been grounded due to a collision with a large bird, the National Interest reports.

At roughly the same time, the Israel Air Force admitted that Syrian forces had launched an S-200 missile against Israeli jets overflying Lebanon. The S-200 is an old Soviet-era missile system, the kind of weaponry the F-35 was developed to defeat.

This led people to speculate that the Israeli F-35 was hit by the venerable antiaircraft missile. If the enemies of the U.S. and her allies managed to counter the jet’s stealth characteristics, it could be a blow to what is the most expensive defense program in history.

However, it is highly unlikely that Israel would be deploying the F-35 to combat areas just yet. The country only has seven of such aircraft in service out of 50 ordered. It stands to reason that the Israelis would thoroughly train their pilots and develop their doctrine before sending the new airplanes into combat.

In short, it is possible for simple but effective soil-to-air missiles to damage and bring down even the most advanced combat jets. No technology is infallible, and in war, all participants are constantly trying to outsmart their opponents.

However, there is no evidence that this is what happened in either case. Both claims seem to be the result of propaganda or conjecture.

Or maybe there is something we weren’t told about yet.

[Featured Image by STR/AP Images]