The shoot-down could significantly escalate tensions that already were running high after the U.S. and allied governments accused Iran of orchestrating recent attacks on merchant ships.
The shoot-down reportedly occurred as the Global Hawk-style drone was flying over or near Iran’s Hormozgan province, which abuts the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a narrow chokepoint separating the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a highly autonomous religious militia that’s separate from the regular Iranian military, claimed responsibility. “The U.S.-made Global Hawk surveillance drone was brought down,” the IRGC told Iranian state media. “It was shot down when it entered Iran's air space near the Kouhmobarak district in the south.”
U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military forces in the Middle East, first confirmed the shoot-down to ABC News. CENTCOM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. officials told ABC News the drone was flying in international air space over the Strait of Hormuz when a surface-to-air missile struck it. ABC News identified the unmanned aerial vehicle as a U.S. Navy MQ-4C, a new variant of the high-flying Global Hawk that the sailing branch is acquiring for ocean surveillance.
Fox News also identified the drone as an MQ-4C.
The type of UAV matters, as it could provide clues about the IRGC’s air-defense capabilities. While the Air Force’s version of the Global Hawk usually cruises at 65,000 feet, beyond the reach of many smaller air-defense systems, the MQ-4C is designed to periodically descend to lower altitudes in order to inspect ships using its on-board cameras.
The IRGC’s most sophisticated air-defense missile, the Russian-made S-300, reportedly can strike targets flying as high as 100,000 feet. As recently as June 13, Iranian forces tried and failed to shoot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone using a much less powerful missile—a version of Russia’s shoulder-fired SA-7.
At the time, the Reaper was flying over the Gulf of Oman conducting surveillance of the Japansese tanker ship Kokuka Courageous, which had reportedly suffered an explosion that CENTCOM claimed was the result of an IRGC attack.
“The SA-7 was ineffective and its closest point of approach to the MQ-9 was approximately one kilometer,” the command stated. The military classifies the MQ-9 as a “medium-altitude” drone. It typically cruises at around 25,000 feet.
Variants of the Global Hawk are among the highest-flying U.S. surveillance aircraft. If the drone was an Air Force Global Hawk or an MQ-4C flying at its maximum altitude when the IRGC shot it down, that could mean that most if not all American spy planes, both manned and unmanned, are vulnerable to IRGC air-defenses while operating over the Strait of Hormuz.
Downing the drone sent a “clear message,” IRGC commander Hossein Salami said, according to Jerusalem Post reporter Anna Ahronheim.
The U.S. military doesn’t totally rely on drones, however. American forces complement surveillance aircraft with a wide array of spy satellites, against which Iran has no effective weapon.
The drone shoot-down is the latest and arguably most serious escalation of the current phase of the long-running conflict between the United States and Iran over a range of issues including Tehran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
The administration of U.S. president Barack Obama in 2015 negotiated a deal with Tehran whereby the United States and its allies lifted economic sanctions in exchange for a verifiable suspension of Iran’s atomic-weapons program.
Tehran for two years abided by the agreement. But Obama’s successor President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2017 and restored sanctions. In return, Iran resumed stockpiling nuclear materials.
“Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions—despite Iran’s compliance—was a major strategic blunder,” Jim Krane, a foreign policy expert with the Baker Institute at Rice University, wrote in Forbes. “It reinvigorated Iranian hardliners, who now have evidence that Washington can only be counted on for one thing: betrayal.”
Those hardliners allegedly were behind the attacks on Kokuka Courageous and other merchant ships—and now claim responsibility for shooting down an American spy drone.
Even before Thursday’s shoot-down, Trump seemed determined to further ratchet up tensions. The White House on June 18 ordered the deployment of 1,000 troops “to address air, naval, and ground-based threats in the Middle East,” according to CENTCOM. The administration earlier deployed B-52 bombers and F-35 stealth fighters to the region.
It’s unclear where this ends. Gregory Kulacki, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts, questioned Trump’s “forethought, planning and intelligence” when it comes to Iran.
“We are all at the mercy of an ignorant, undisciplined and unpredictable U.S. president,” Kulacki tweeted. “Anything is possible.”