Red Sea Drone Attacks Create First American Ace In 50+ Years


The U.S. military’s first war ace since Vietnam is fighting an enemy his predecessors couldn’t have imagined. Marine Capt. Earl Ehrhart has shot down seven explosives-packed suicide drones with his Harrier jump jet in the Navy’s effort to keep Red Sea shipping lanes open. The military defines an ace as any crew member whose aircraft has shot down five enemy aircraft. “I never imagined I was going to be doing this when we launched,” Ehrhart told the BBC, which was granted a tour of the USS Bataan, one of dozens of ships involved in the Red Sea operation.

Ehrhart told BBC the force is under constant threat of attack from Houthi rebels who began attacking merchant ships in December. The Bataan is actually an amphibious assault ship designed to rapidly deploy fully equipped fight forces to conflict areas. It pivoted to an air defense vessel with some outside-the-box thinking by its crew. “We took a Harrier jet and modified it for air defence,” Ehrhart told the BBC. “We loaded it up with missiles and that way were able to respond to their drone attacks.” The ship picks up the drones on its sensors and Ehrhart heads off in a one-sided pursuit. “They are shooting at us all the time, so we need to be even more focused. Our systems need to be primed so we can stay safe.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Let’s see ’em do that with the F-35B STOVL!

    The Harrier is supposed to be retired but look what it’s doing. DON’T retire them.

    • And pray tell sir, what exactly is it the Harrier is doing that the F-35B cannot? BTW the Harrier is more difficult to fly in a hover, presents a greater heat signature to IR missiles, has less payload and range than an F-35, not to mention low observable characteristics and technology plus a radar better than the F-22’s and an integrated IRST system. Tell me again why we should not (gracefully) retire out the AV-8B? I am however glad to see the old bird sharpen it’s talons and see some air to air action (not since the Falklands)!

      • According to the story it’s already doing it. Somebody or somebodies integrated the AV-8B into the response and have made it work, while to this point the F-35B has not been used, for whatever reasons.

        • If memory serves me correctly, the west coast squadrons got the F-35B first because they are a higher priority (r.e. China). It’s still being rolled out to the east coast squadrons, who are the ones currently in the Med and CENTCOM areas of operation.

      • The question isn’t so much can it, but will it do the same thing. Much like the B-2 was rarely used for high risk missions, even though that was its entire design purpose, the F-35 isn’t being used where it might be damaged or lost. It’s an inherent strategic problem with the U.S. military at the moment. We spend massive sums to design and build things that won’t be used, all the while defunding or retiring the weapon systems that are being leaned on heavily with the excrement hits the fan.

        • Bingo! Ya answered JetJocs question, Jim. The USAF has the best CAS airplane ever — the A-10 — and now is retiring them in favor of using the F-35A … yet when the SHTF, the A-10 gets used. Same thing here … they build the F-35B yet are using the Harrier. Who the hell is running our military? 🙁 I know someone who was a heavy hitter involved w the F-35 … all I’ll say is … I wanna see it DO what they’re claiming.

  2. It always looks the most bird like of aircraft — wings on the top, bulging canopy which looks like a head and radar nose beak.
    Makes a huge racket — although the F35 which looks more like a builders trowel is said to make even more.

    • I live 10 miles from Luke AFB. I can confirm the F35 is much louder than any other ac in the sky. I could occasionally hear the f16s when it was cold and quiet at night. The f35s I can hear in the middle of the day in the summer.

      • Don’t you love the noise? I do. When I visit my dad in Surprise we take the Harleys out to Luke and watch them from as close as we can. I’ve made eye contact with the F-35 pilots. F-16’s also. They’re smiling as much as I am.

        • Yeah, I don’t mind it. I could see it being obnoxious if I lived closer though. It is quieter than the a-holes driving their hellcats through the neighborhood with their exhaust cutouts wide open.

  3. John, I have yet to see the “B” in a hover in person. Saw the AV-8 numerous times at OSH! However, the 35A does sound like it’s ripping the sky apart during airshow demos!!! To me, sounds noisier than the F-22.

  4. I have immense respect for naval pilots, especially Marines. They did a lot of things with the Harrier that were not even thought of during its genesis. That said, how does shooting down a drone make one an ace? V1s were kills but not considered in making one an ace. Air to air combat involves the other fellow also fighting/evading vs these drones.

    • If a pilot shot down 5 enemy tankers or transports BVR, she’d be accounted an ace, and rightly so.

      This doesn’t seem significantly different to me.

  5. Shooting down a $1K DJI drone with a $1M missile is a waste of money

    As the drones don’t shoot back, use the A-10 Warthog gun

    • Hi, Barry! Thanks for your post. Another way to think about it is to not focus on the cost of the drone, but on the value of the cargo being targeted, not to mention the incalculable value of the lives on the ships! Maybe in that way, $1 million to take down a drone isn’t such a waste of money after all!

      Have a great day!

      • I should also mention that the drones being used by the Houthis are rather sophisticated weapons being supplied by Iran, rather than off-the-shelf commercial quadcopters! My apologies for leaving that piece out!

  6. F35s are brought in when needed, not every threat when another platform can meet the need. Israel was one of the earliest users of the F35, with its version, F35I, Adir, translated “the mighty one”. In November, an Adir shot down a cruise missile launched from Yemen….a first for the F35. And not all ops are available to the general public now.

    I have brought a number of pilots groups to Lockheed Martin’s Demonstrator Center for one on one demonstrations with an instructor in the demonstrators (minus anything classified), and some of the guest groups also got to try on the impressive helmets, that have the readouts in the visors, no matter where the pilot turns his/her head, which can also give a view, of what is under the a/c, should the pilot look down. It is capable of many impressive features. It was meant to compliment the F22, not replace it. Anything less than a 5th generation a/c would not survive a peer adversary. Up until now, we’ve not had to, and therefore, it’s used selectively. That may not be for much longer, though. There also will likely be occasions in the future, where the aircraft leads a swarm of UAVs.

    With that said, the jet is extremely costly to operate. It is very high maintenance…but it is also here to stay until a 6th gen. fighter is integrated.

    • I worked the B-58 Hustler in the late 60’s. The USAF retired them because of very high MMH/FH and MFHBUM numbers. I wanna see the F-35 in protracted OPS and IT’s stats

  7. One uses what one has. The Harrier works excellently in this application. Keep up the good work and thank you for your service Capt. Erhart!

  8. The F-35B Lightning is not approved for combat assignment aboard a Wasp class LHD like the Bataan. There have been test and training and even proving missions, but the Lightning is not combat deployable at this time on a Wasp class LHD.
    The Marines are using land based C-130’s for refueling the Harriers and Osprey that are in the strike group. They do not have the ability to refuel via carrier based aircraft.
    Rearming and using land based refueling to extend the reach of the Harrier is an example of the Marines making do with the equipment they have on hand and completing the mission. Yes, I am a very proud Marine Dad whose son is a pilot that just rotated off the Bataan after many mission over the Red Sea and off the coast of Israel.

    • That’s exactly why I made a point of saying the F-35B is a — STOVL — airplane v. the Harrier (above), Airport Bum. All that money spent on the thing and they have to revert to using a Harrier. IMHO, the F-35 is another F-111 TFX mistake. Beyond that, it IS great to be able to look below the airplane but if you have to fly it ‘dirty’ to have enough weapons to fight most of the time, what was the point?

  9. I am constanly amazed at the lovefest for the A10 and now the Harrier. Both were great airplanes in their time. But the last A10 is more than 40 years old. if it’s lived an easy life it has over 8000 hours on the airframe, and that’s the newest one. Hard to replace parts break and technology gets better. Certainly the AV8B was far superior to the AV8A. But it’s still ancient tech in a modern battle space.
    I loved flying the F4. When I moved into the F/A-18, I was amazed and astounded at the technological leaps and bounds that had been made as well as the aerodynamic improvements. If I was still flying, I’d love to add stealth and the situational awaresness of the F-35 to my bag of tricks. What a great airplane in concept and now in front line deployment.
    Embrace the best for Americas warfighters and stop trying to keep them in the museum pieces that we all loved, but that need to be retired.

    • The F18 is indeed better than the F4 even though as an Air Defender the F4 made our jobs easy since we could hear it coming and usually identified it as friendly before it was even in range.

      When we get a dedicated CAS bird to replace the A10, I will happily bid the old girls a fond farewell. Until then there will be folks on the ground just a bit more worried about the quality and timeliness of those angels above that let them fight so many with so few.

      • MY point exactly, Eric. I served on the A-10 Test Force in 1975 at Edwards AFB so I know precisely what it can do. It’s been in service since ’76 and the last ones were built in 1984. So the 281 of 761 built are 40 or more years older. But just ask any Army grunt what THEY think of the A-10 … the earful you’ll get will convince you of its ongoing value. It’s not and never has been an air-air fighter … it was to kill tanks and things on the ground, sustain battle damage and return home anyways. An F-16 or an F-35 in the CAS role with limited amounts of 20mm will never be able to compare. The new turboprop CAS airplanes are toys by comparison, too. And they ain’t stealthy …

      • I was a Marine pilot and the majority of what we focused on was CAS. 20mm is not a CAS weapon, Mavrick and Paveway are stand off precision weapons from the 80s, that keep the CAS aircraft away from ground based small arms fire. Yes an A10 can take a lot of hits, but it’s far better to not be hit, if its an option. Getting a positive lock and releasing a weapon from miles away is far preferable to entering a dive and tracking a target for a gun shot, even with a 30mm gun. Yes strafing was fun (20mm for me) and effective against moderately armored targets (30mm in the A10) but it’s day is past in all but the most permissive of environments. Its far better for the target to be destroyed before it even knows it’s being engaged and stand off munitions are cheaper than aircraft and aircrews. Just my 2 cents.

        • As a Marine pilot, YOU — better than most — would understand you don’t support engaged grunts or spec ops forces with BVR weapons. GPS guided SDB’s … maybe? And once the bad boys hear a GAU-8 “singing,” they usually run away IF they can. You are right … a 20mm is not a CAS weapon … especially with the limited number of rounds an F-35 carries. SOMETIMES, just jet noise scares the bad boys SO … the noisy F-35 and F-22 will be good for that.

        • As a Marine pilot, you are uniquely unqualified to understand my point because your command structure is different.
          Your marines are less concerned with the priorities of marine leadership leaving them in a lurch. You share mission priorities.
          Army soldiers are rightly concerned with the priorities of the USAF who have shown their preferences to put as much of their resources as possible into air superiority before and during conflicts.
          As such, I’d rather have the A10 around to deliver the Mavericks than an F16 around to maybe deliver the Mavericks if it’s not busy somewhere else.
          Frankly, I’d rather the Army tell the USAF go to live their best lives as air superiority and bombing specialists while the Army builds whatever CAS and transport it needs itself.

  10. While telling jokes about Maines, and other Navy types, is always good fun, I must congratulate good Captain Erhart and the entire crew of the Bataan for their hard work and success.

    Well Done.

  11. How can a drone be a “suicide drone?” Does the operator die back at base when the thing hits its target?? Just seems like sensationalism. And for that matter we already terminology for this thing. It’s called a radio guided missile. I realize the “tech at all costs for every situation” crowd is still fighting to become mainstream, but stuff like this really creeps me out. Get real already.

    For the record I suspect this phrase was harvested from other source reports and merely slipped in without thought. No doubt it was used in every source. “Suicide Drone” is so much more scary than a guided bomb. But unless I miss my guess the “suicide” angle promoted is likely factually inaccurate – to put it kindly.

    • Sometimes clarity and usage trump language precision. I don’t think we confused anyone with suicide drone but I bet we would have with radio guided missile, which conjures up a completely different vehicle in my mind.

  12. Still, the Harrie is a great asset against these Kamazi Drones… Kudos to those who fly them. And to all those who banter about the F-35 stay focused on the important part of the early aircraft that is still proving its worth… Just like the gun with a plane A-10… Use what works