Iran Shoots Down U.S. Navy Surveillance Drone

U.S. Navy RQ-4 (file image courtesy USN / Northrop Grumman)

Published Jun 20, 2019 12:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

Early Thursday morning, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a U.S. Navy surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz with a surface-to-air missile. American and Iranian accounts of the incident differ: the IRGC claims that the drone was flying over the Iranian coastal district of Kouhmobarak, adjacent to the strait, while the Navy asserts that it was operating in international airspace.

"Shooting down the American spy drone had a clear, decisive, firm and accurate message," said IRGC commander Hossein Salami in a statement to state-owned media. "The message is that the guardians of the borders of Islamic Iran will decisively respond to the violation of any stranger to this land. The only solution for the enemies is to respect the territorial integrity and national interests of Iran . . . We do not intend to engage in war with any country, but we are completely ready for the war."

For its part, the U.S. Navy maintains that the drone never crossed into Iranian territory. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace," said a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in a statement.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a large high altitude, long endurance drone, and it performs the same mission as the Cold War-era U2 reconnaissance airplane. It has a wingspan of about 130 feet, a maximum flight time of more than 30 hours, a high-resolution radar system and high-spec cameras to monitor large areas in fine detail. Its unit cost is in the range of $130 million ($220 million when including R&D expenses). 

The drone shot down Thursday was a Navy-operated RQ-4, part of the service's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) test program. The Navy has ordered a modified version for maritime surveillance, the MQ-4C Triton, which is expected to enter full service in 2021.  

On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump said that the incident might have been an accident or an error made by lower-level Iranian personnel. 

“I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” Trump said. “I think they made a mistake, and I’m not just talking the country made a mistake. I think that someone under the command of that country made a big mistake,” 

Earlier this week, Trump downplayed the recent tanker attacks linked to Iranian forces, describing them as "very minor." He is not believed to favor a large-scale military intervention in Iran (unlike some of his advisors). 

While he may not be in favor of kinetic action, Trump has no intention of backing down from the sweeping economic sanctions his administration imposed on Iran last year, according to Senator Lindsey Graham, a confidant and supporter of the president. The stiff sanctions measures have cut Iran's oil exports by 80 percent compared to peak levels last year, and they have made it difficult for any Iranian entity to conduct financial transactions with the outside world. 

"He's not going to relieve sanctions because the Iranians are worse than they [have] been. The Iranian deal was to get them to change their behavior, the nuclear deal. They did everything but change their behavior," Graham told reporters Thursday.