The plane was flying over Estonia. The cause of the mishap remains unclear.
A Eurofighter 2000 was on a NATO air patrol near the Russian border with Estonia today when it accidentally fired an air-to-air missile. The plane returned to Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, but the missile is MIA. Its presumed location is 40km north of Tartu in Estonia. Spanish authorities are warning people to beware going near “something that looks like a missile.”
The investigation is just beginning, but how can a modern fighter just make such a serious mistake?
The Eurofighter is a pretty smart aircraft and a pilot can’t just lean on a control stick or mistakenly press a button to fire a missile. The Spanish plane has an armament control system (ACS) in place, part of the airplane’s brain that controls missile shots, among other things.
The fighter’s flight manual makes it pretty clear that an air-to-air missile shot requires some interplay between pilot, warplane, and ordnance. The aircraft passes data about the target’s direction and speed to the missile before launch. The user’s guide makes it clear that a clean shot is very much intentional and is governed by a process:
“The system calculates the minimum and two maximum weapon ranges, which are marked on the scale as horizontal lines. The two maximum ranges differ as one range is based on the target remaining at 1g while the other assumes that the target will perform an escape maneuver.”
However, there are times a pilot might need to take a quick shot. Pilots call this shooting a missile in “boresight mode.” The Eurofighter can do this, according to the official literature. “A gapped circle of fixed diameter, having six dashes and centered on the LFD, indicates the area in which the AMRAAM will search when launched in visual mode (7.5° around the bore sight, known as the acquisition cone.”
But this is a dangerous move, taken only when a pilot is outnumbered by hostile aircraft, since the missile locks onto the first threat it sees. The idea that a NATO pilot took these steps by accident seems remote.
The incident in Europe today will be researched and scrutinized, with investigators looking for human error, flight control computer bugs, and other potential causes. If the incident holds true to history, it will be a combination of both. If NATO is lucky, the bad shooting will lead to easily made changes in software or training that will prevent future mishaps.
Previously published by: Popular Mechanics USA