At 11.35pm (GMT) on 19 June, an Iranian surface to air missile struck and downed a US RQ-4A Global Hawk drone operating over the Straits of Hormuz. According to the US, the drone, operated by the US Navy (which calls it a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV – hence some initial confusion about the exact type of drone) was flying in international airspace, although Iran was equally insistent it was flying in Iranian airspace, with the Iranian Foreign Minister tweeting what he said was the GPS location of the strike.
Hours later, according to US administration officials, President Trump approved a retaliatory strike against Iranian targets, including radar and missile batteries. However, this strike was subsequently called off, either as the planes were in air, or at an early stage in the planning, according to differing anonymous sources. President Trump tweeted that he called off the strike after receiving a briefing that 150 people would be killed in the strike and he judge that “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone”.
The Iranian strike on the Global Hawk drone has to be seen in the context of rising tensions between the US and Iran. President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in May 2018 and imposed harsh economic sanction on the country in August and November 2018 and additional ones in May 2019. In the same month, four oil tankers travelling through the Strait of Hormuz were attacked and a further two attacked in the Gulf of Oman in June 2019. US officials blame Iran for the attacks – which Iran denies – and says Iran was also behind the shooting down of a US Reaper drone by Houthi forces in Yemen and an attempt to shoot down another US Reaper hours before the attack on the tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Amidst all the claims and counter-claims, what is agreed by both Iran and the US is that Iranian forces shot down a US Global Hawk drone. When Syria said it shot down a US Predator in March 2017, the US would only acknowledge the drone was “lost” but would not comment on the Syrian claims. Similarly, when non-state groups claim to have shot down Predator or Reaper drones these have generally turned out to be false (drones crash a lot due to mechanical or electronic failures as our recent report details). However, recent claims by Houthis in Yemen to have shot down Reaper drones have been boosted after anonymous US officials accepted that a drone have been shot down.
Following the decision not to respond to the downing of the drone, President Trump tried to downplay the strike arguing it was not deliberate:
“I would imagine it was a general or somebody that made a mistake in shooting that drone down. I find it hard to believe it was intentional if you want to know the truth. I think it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it. It was a very foolish move.”
However, Iran have been very clear that it did deliberately strike the drone as – it said – the drone had crossed into Iranian airspace. In a letter to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, Iranian ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi said: “When the aircraft was returning towards the western parts of the region near the strait of Hormuz, despite repeated radio warnings, it entered into the Iranian airspace.”
IRGC commander, Hossein Salami, told Iranian media:
“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.”
It’s not clear if the Iranians specifically targeted a Global Hawk rather than a Reaper but the financial implications are huge. While a Reaper drone costs less than $20m, a Global Hawk is more than ten times that amount. And undertaking the mission it was, it was likely to be carrying a large amount of secret and expensive surveillance equipment.
As is becoming widely accepted, drones lower the threshold for the use of armed force. However, it seems – in this case at least – striking at drones may also be the preferred choice rather than striking a ‘manned’ aircraft. An IRGC commander said that Iran had decided to down the unmanned aircraft rather than a P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft – which has a large crew – flying in the same area. Trump also indicated that he was not carrying out a retaliatory attack which could have killed up to 150 people as no US personnel had been killed in the attack on the drone.
Twenty-five years ago, a US Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Somalia leading to a significant change in US policy (and the film Black Hawk Down). While there are very significant differences between the downing of the two aircraft (not least the deaths of many Somalis and Americans) this strike too raises very serious policy questions both about the US policy towards Iran and the nature and impact of drones and how they are changing the nature of war in all sorts of ways.