Just as the U.S. is building international support for its case against Iran and its supposed involvement in attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman and other recent nefarious acts in the region, Iran has announced that they have shot down an American drone. And not just any drone, an RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) spy drone. This is the most advanced unmanned system currently being employed operationally by the Air Force in a non-secretive manner. RQ-4s, which carry a full suite of electro-optical, radar, and electronic intelligence gathering systems spy from on high, often skirt along the edge of territorial boundaries in order to peer into a targeted country from a slant angle, are highly active in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Iran's IRNA news agency says the drone was shot down when it entered Iran's airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in Hormozgan province. This stretch of Iranian coastal territory lays near equally on both sides of the Straits of Hormuz. Kouhmobarak sits on the southern approach to the strait, very near where the tanker attacks occurred.
The entire stretch of Hormozgan province is a prime area where American aerial surveillance aircraft—in particular unmanned ones—patrol to update intelligence on Iranian military activities, to monitor communications, and to update the status of Iran's electronic order of battle—where Iran's air defenses are and in what state—on a regular basis. Right now, in the aftermath of the tanker attacks, these flights would be absolutely crucial for providing real-time strategic and tactical intelligence, as well as gathering further evidence regarding Iran's role in the mining of the ships.
The U.S. denies that any aircraft had entered Iranian territory, but is keeping mum on if an aircraft was lost. In addition, the RQ-4 flies at upwards of 65,000 feet, so this would have been a sophisticated radar-guided surface-to-air missile that shot the aircraft down, not a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile. Iran has plenty of capability in this regard, including an advanced version of Russia's S-300 system. Firing on an aircraft with this type of weapon would definitely be viewed as an escalation. Alternatively, the aircraft could have been brought down by an Iranian fighter aircraft, but this is less likely.
Just before the tankers were struck last week, the U.S. says Iran tried to shoot down a lower-flying MQ-9 Reaper drone with a modified shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, which did not hit its target. If Iran took down any drone, let alone a Global Hawk, the act lends a huge amount of credit to the claim of an early attack by the Pentagon.
There have also been reports that the variant of Global Hawk that was shot down was actually a U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drone. There's an issue with those reports—to our knowledge, there are no MQ-4Cs in the region. In fact, the MQ-4C is slated to make its very first deployment ever to Guam—which is literally on the other side of the planet—this Summer. This could have changed and it is possible that one deployed in an emergency capacity, but we have no evidence of that as of yet.
Two other possibilities exist outside of the aircraft being an RQ-4, there are also EQ-4s in the region that fly regularly. These are Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) configured aircraft that work exclusively at providing a networking and communications hub capabilities for data-links and radios used by local forces. It is unlikely that this was the aircraft shot down as it wouldn't need to be loitering off Iran's coast as it does not have a surveillance mission.
The other possibility is the RQ-4N BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator) aircraft that were the experimental precursor to the Navy's MQ-4C. We are not aware of these aircraft, which live at the Navy's main aircraft test base at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, being in the region, but it is possible.
Beyond that, it could be a totally different type altogether. Iran has a track record of claiming certain drones were shot down that weren't. A strategic asset like the RQ-4 would be a serious prize.
The loss of an RQ-4 isn't just an escalation of what could instantly become a bloody shooting war in the region, it also represents a significant technological loss, depending on how intact the aircraft's components were when they struck the ground. The systems onboard the RQ-4 are highly sensitive in nature and Iran and its friends Russia and China would love to get their hands on even pieces of them.
Also, Iran's push to take down American drones isn't necessarily new. Iran has tried to molest U.S. drones operating near its airspace in the past. In 2013, a Predator was given an F-22 escort to counter Iran's hostility to the unmanned aircraft, leading to what became a high profile story in the media about F-22s surprising Iranian fighter pilots.
Regardless, if Iran's claims are even remotely true, and a U.S. drone was swatted down by their hand, the security situation in the airspace off the Iranian coast has just become far more volatile.
Will will update this post when more information comes available.
UPDATE: 12:50am PDT—
We are now getting multiple reports that officials within the Pentagon are confirming that this was an MQ-4C. This means the aircraft secretly deployed to the region. They are also adamant that the loss occurred in international airspace.
It's important to discuss the MQ-4C's capabilities here in the context of the situation. It is not just a standoff radar, imagery, and electronic intelligence gathering platform optimized for the maritime environment. It uses its MTS electro-optical turret to check targets out in detail by dropping down to lower altitudes and approaching them. In other words, it is meant to fly at lower altitudes as well as higher ones, unlike the Global Hawk. It also has a lower operating altitude than the RQ-4 in general. It has anti-icing systems for penetrating bad weather because of these factors. So there is a chance it may have been operating at medium altitude, or even lower momentarily, depending on its mission profile and what its operators were seeing. This puts it into a larger number of SAM systems engagement envelopes.
MQ-4C isn't just a 'blue water' surveillance tool. It can watch areas of interest in the littorals and keep track of an enemy's actions in a high fidelity manner. It is an amazing system. The closer you get to say a port of interest the better the quality of certain types of intel it can gather. So just staying far away means you are not maximizing the aircraft's unique capabilities as a multi-intelligence gathering platform. Fusing radar, electronic, and image intel together—all of which the aircraft can provide—over long periods of time is really why its capabilities are so awesome. To get the best out of all three, closer proximity to a target area may be required. So there are tradeoffs when it comes to risk versus reward.
Also, if this was indeed an MQ-4C on its first deployment, a secret one, remember it would have been totally new to the Iranians too. They could have been seeing a Global Hawk doing stuff a Global Hawk doesn't do. This would draw interest and likely targeting priority.
UPDATE: 1:37am PDT—
Our friend @Aircraftspots has done some awesome work tracking potentially the aircraft in question that would have arrived just five days ago in the Middle East.
There is a discrepancy with the serial number and identity of this aircraft. It does not belong to an MQ-4C, it belongs to a BAMS-D demonstrator that we mentioned in the article above. And flying it from NAS Pax River makes perfect sense as that is where they live. The only operational MQ-4C squadron is located at NAS Point Mugu on the other side of the country.
So, it looks like DoD officials are likely confused and what was probably lost was a BAMS-D. These airframes were recycled from early Block 10 RQ-4A Global Hawks that the USAF no longer wanted and used for experimental testing and proof of concept work during development for what would become the MQ-4C Triton.
You can see the exact aircraft in question here, also it is featured in the text above when we talk about BAMS-D.
UPDATE: 2:05pm PDT—
Iran's state-run media says the system used to shoot down the aircraft was the Raad (Thunder) air defense system. It is a road-mobile, medium-range SAM system loosely analogous to Russia's SA-11 Buk. It has the ability to shoot down aircraft flying at medium to high altitudes.
Update: 4:28am PDT—
We have official confirmation, as we exclusively stated, it was a BAMS-D.
UPDATE: 5:22am PDT—
Keep in mind, BAMS-D, like the Global Hawk and the MQ-4C to a degree, has a zero penetration mission. It doesn't fly into contested airspace. It is literally a sitting duck. The only reason it would do so would be if it was off the leash or there was a major navigational malfunction. It is far more likely Iran just shot it out of international airspace as the Pentagon states.
UPDATE: 5:40am PDT—
Here is the "clear message" the head of Iran's hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, is saying Iran sent with the shoot-down:
“The downing of the American drone was a clear message to America ... our borders are Iran’s red line and we will react strongly against any aggression ... Iran is not seeking war with any country, but we are fully prepared to defend Iran."
UPDATE: 7:30am PDT—
We have our first reaction from President Donald Trump in the form of the very brief Tweet below:
Just days ago, Trump had told reporters, with regards to Iran, "We’ll see what happens. Let me just say this: We are very prepared."
UPDATE: 7:50am PDT—
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, told reporters that he had met with the President and that Trump felt "his options are running out."
There are also reporters that the National Security Council led a meeting about the situation and possible responses to it at the White House with senior military leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, but without President Trump. There is another meeting now set to occur with Trump this afternoon.
UPDATE: 9:30am PDT—
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command and the Combined Forces Air Component Commander for U.S. Central Command, has just given a very brief press briefing with additional details about the shootdown and has also provided a map, showing the location where the BAMS-D drone crashed and where the Iranian surface-to-air missile originated. Guastella said that the unmanned aircraft was flying at "high altitude" and was 34 kilometers (approximately 21 miles) from the Iranian coast at the time of the attack and that it fell into international waters. There is no word yet on whether the U.S. miliary has recovered any part of it, but Navy ships are reportedly moving to the area, if they are not there already.
"This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, UAE and Muscat, Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians," Guastella added. It is worth noting that the distance across the Strait of Hormuz between the UAE and Iran in the area where the shootdown occurred is less than 60 miles.
UPDATE: 10:15am PDT—
The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet has now released a video showing the smoke trail from the BAMS-D drone after an Iranian missile struck it. The official caption does not say what other asset filmed the shoot down, but various Navy ships and U.S. military manned and unmanned aircraft have been operating in this particular area in the aftermath of the attacks on the two oil tankers last week.
UPDATE: 10:25am PDT—
President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters during a press availability at the White House alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has said he believes the shoot down may have been a mistake by Iranian personnel who were "loose and stupid." He also added that the United States "will not stand for it."
"I think probably Iran made a mistake – I would imagine it was a general or somebody that made a mistake in shooting that drone down," he said. "But this is a new wrinkle, a new fly in the ointment what happened, shooting down a drone. And this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you."
UPDATE: 10:40am PDT—
We now also have unconfirmed footage of Iranian personnel firing the Raad (Thunder) missile at the BAMS-D drone.
UPDATE: 10:55am PDT—
Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency, has released a video showing Iran's claimed timeline of events. The video indicates that Iranian forces tracked the BAMS-D drone as it flew from Al Dafra Air Base, through the Strait of Hormuz, and into the Gulf of Oman, all the while in interntional waters, before returning and flying the same basic route back to base. However, the Iranians say that when the drone came near Kouhmobarak, it turned and entered their airspace, prompting the shootdown.
It is worth noting that U.S. military manned and unmanned intelligence gathering aircraft routinely fly these over-water routes in international airspace around Iran's borders and that they are extremely well established. The map below, which dates to 2013, shows one of these routes in the Persian Gulf.
UPDATE: 11:40am PDT—
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has given precise map coordinates for where Iran says the drone was flying when it targeted it and also claims Iranian forces recovered portions of the unmanned aircraft that landed in the country's territorial waters.
We have ended our updates to this post. You can find our continuing coverage of this story here.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com