Various reports began surfacing yesterday evening that a Saudi Arabian fighter jet, said to be an F-16, was shot down by Houthi rebels near Sana’a Yemen. Pictures on Twitter showed what looked like mangled wreckage from such an incident. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has not admitted to losing a jet. So what happened?
First off, the wreckage is Saudi in origin, as it has the The Kingdom’s Air Force markings clearly visible where they should be. We also know that Saudi air strikes have been pounding Sana’a and its vicinity over the last few days.
Secondly, the mangled mess did not belong to an F-16, because Saudi Arabia doesn’t have any F-16s. Saudi Arabia’s Air Force is based around the F-15C/D/S Eagle, Eurofighter Typhoon and Tornado IDS for strike and fighter duties.
In addition, the pylons and external fuel tanks shown as wreckage in pictures coming out of the area look distinctly F-15, and the only weapons shown in the pictures include an AIM-9M Sidewinder and a AIM-120C AMRAAM. How can you tell that it is a C model of the AMRAAM? By the “clipped” fins designed so that the missile would fit inside a F-22 weapons bay.
The possibility of a relatively intact AIM-120C falling into Houthi rebel hands is not a good thing, as that missile will almost certainly end up in Iranian custody, and possibly Chinese or Russian labs after that. Although the AIM-120C was introduced in the late 1990s and is not a new missile, the C-5 and C-7 versions are newer and widely fielded across US and allied fighter fleets to this very day. They will remain so until the AIM-120D AMRAAM becomes operational and distributed in great numbers. Saudi Arabia is known to have ordered the AIM-120C-7 back in 2010 as part of a massive US-Saudi Arabian arms sale.
So what exactly is going on here? It looks like a Saudi F-15, either a C model or a S model, ejected its stores over enemy territory. Doing so is a sign that the F-15 in question may have had a fuel problem and needed to drastically lighten its load to make it back to friendly territory. Otherwise, jettisoning all stores could have happened under some circumstances such as a partial control system failure, receiving battle damage, or by a major mistake within the cockpit, although that latter option is not likely.
Omitting strange outlaying factors, if indeed the crew jettisoned its missiles and its stored pylons as well as its external fuel tanks, it would largely point to a very serious emergency as a handful of air-to-air missiles and two pylons alone do not cause a drag or weight penalty on the F-15. External fuel tanks, on the other hand, do.
Although aircraft have been lost during the Saudi-led air campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, as of now, no other wreckage or this supposed jet’s crew have been shown, and Saudi Arabia does not admit losing an aircraft at all. This is not to say that a Saudi F-15 did not crash miles away after dropping its stores during an catastrophic emergency, or that the wreckage is even accessible to Houthi fighters at this time, but currently it looks as if no aircraft actually crashed, just its external tanks and its air-to-air weaponry.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.