Iran Downing Of Sophisticated Drone To Hurt US ‘Quite A Lot’

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TEHRAN — Military experts say the loss of the RQ-4A Global Hawk will hurt the US “quite a lot”, marking the first known instance of the workhorse drone being shot down in its nearly 18-year operational history.

Iran’s Thursday downing of the unmanned reconnaissance aircraft which was developed to evade the very surface-to-air missiles used to shoot it surprised Pentagon officials, the New York Times said.

“This isn’t a throwaway drone whose loss the US will just shrug off,” said Ulrike Franke, a drone expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who described the RQ-4A as a flying “data hoover.”

It’s not just the price tag that makes the loss of this drone a big deal. The drone is designed to be harder to hit, she said, because it flies at altitudes beyond the reach of many air defense systems. 

“Drones commonly refer to the small, unmanned aerial vehicles seen crisscrossing local skies — but the US military’s RQ-4A Global Hawk shot down by Iran bears little resemblance to its buzzing brethren,” the New York Post said. 

The aircraft costs a whopping $123 million apiece — about $34 million more than Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Lightning II, the Pentagon’s next-generation stealth fighter jets, according to Military.com, which cited Pentagon documents.

According to analysis by the Government Accountability Office, Global Hawks have at times cost the US more than $220 million to manufacture and equip.

The 47-foot-long, jet-powered RQ-4A has a wingspan of about 130 feet — more than a Boeing 737 — and can fly at altitudes of about 65,000 feet for longer than 24 hours while packed with sophisticated sensors.

The RQ-4A has amassed over 250,000 flight hours and has flown in support of US missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, the New York Post said, citing its maker Northrop Grumman.

Carrying multiple sensor payloads, the drone “is designed to gather near-real-time, high-resolution imagery of large areas of land in all types of weather — day or night,” according to Northrop.

Franke said the size and expense of the Global Hawk makes it a significant loss. “This drone was specifically designed to be largely invulnerable — because it flies so extremely high,” she said. 

Some Global Hawks are deployed to Al Dahfra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. They have been used extensively in the Persian Gulf, relying on a suite of high-end electronic sensors and other intelligence-gathering systems to peer into other countries.

“There’s a lot going on here, and we’re probably only seeing some of it,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Franke said the US military custom-outfits different vehicles for different missions, making it uncertain what exact equipment this particular Global Hawk carried.

“There could always be super secret spy tech onboard that we don’t know about,” she said of the downed aircraft which is used by both the US Air Force and the US Navy.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said parts of the drone have been recovered as he brushed aside US claims that the aircraft way flying in international airspace. 

Iran memorably captured a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone in December 2011 and later reverse-engineered the vehicle’s hardware and software to copy its technology. Sentinel drones are thought to use stealth technology for inconspicuous aerial reconnaissance. 

Iran said the IRGC shot down the US drone with an upgraded Khordad missile-defense system, which can detect and track targets 95 miles away and down them at a distance of 30 miles. The system can target enemy aircraft flying as high as 81,000 feet, or roughly 15 miles.

The RQ-4A Global Hawk “flies at a very high altitude, so the fact that the Iranians were able to shoot it down shows that they have some pretty significant capabilities,” Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, said. 

“In some ways, the shoot-down is a signaling mechanism to the United States that Iran is more capable than we might have assumed,” she said. 

Tankers, drones and tweets: Key events in Gulf tensions

Mysterious attacks on tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, assaults on oil facilities and an airport in Saudi Arabia, and the downing of a US military drone by Iranian forces – these are just a few of the incidents that have ratcheted up tensions in the Gulf in recent weeks.

The series of events, which began in May, comes against the backdrop of an escalating crisis between the United States and Iran, triggered by US President Donald Trump’s decision on May 8 last year to withdraw from a multilateral deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

In the year since, the US has reimposed and tightened crippling sanctions on Iran.

Tehran is now threatening to resume higher uranium enrichment.

As fears grow of an open conflict between the US and Iran, here’s a look at the key events that have contributed to the crisis.

Blacklist

On April 8, 2019, the US declares Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist” group. It is the first time the US has branded part of a foreign government a “terrorist” group.

The next day, Iran says US troops serving in the wider Middle East from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan are “terrorist” organisations.

US deployment

On May 5, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton announces the Pentagon is sending an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to the Middle East.

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces,” he says.

On May 7, the US says it is deploying B-52 bombers, a Patriot missile battery and an amphibious assault ship in the region.

Sanctions

On May 8, on the anniversary of US’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran says it is preparing to increase enriched uranium and heavy water production as part of its decision to stop some commitments made under the 2015 pact with major world powers.

On the same day, Trump announces new measures against Iran’s steel and mining sectors. They come in addition to punishing sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

Washington has since hit Iran’s largest petrochemical group PGPIC with sanctions.

‘Sabotage attacks’ on ships

On May 12, four ships, including three oil tankers, are damaged in mysterious “sabotage attacks” off the United Arab Emirates.

Bolton says on May 30 that Iran is “almost certainly” behind the attacks. 

On June 6, the UAE says the initial findings of a multinational investigation into the attacks point to the likelihood that a state was behind them, but does not blame any specific country.

On June 13, the day Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, a Norwegian and a Japanese tanker come under “attack” in the Gulf of Oman. Washington, London and Riyadh blame Iran, which deniesinvolvement. 

Houthi attacks

Yemen’s Houthi rebels launch drone attacks on Saudi Arabia on May 14, striking a major oil pipeline and taking it out of service. Two days later, Riyadh, a key US ally, blames Iran for the drone attack on its pipeline.

The US and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of arming the Houthis, but Tehran denies the claim.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman hosts three high-level summits in Mecca on May 31 and June 1, drawing heads of state from across the Middle East and Muslim countries to present a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran. The monarch calls on the international community to use all means to confront Iran and accuses Tehran of being behind “terrorist operations” that targeted Saudi oil interests.

On June 12, Riyadh says 26 people are wounded in an attack by Houthis targeting an airport in kingdom’s southwestern town of Abha. The Houthis claim they had launched a cruise missile at the airport.

Baghdad rocket attack

A rocket lands near the US embassy in Baghdad on May 19. No one is harmed. It’s not clear who is behind the attack, but Trump tweets: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responds by tweeting that Trump had been “goaded” into “genocidal taunts”.

On May 15, the US pulls out all non-essential staff from Iraq, citing threats to its forces in the country. A senior US military official blames Iranian proxies in Iraq for the rocket attack.

More US troops

On June 16, CENTCOM says an Iranian missile tried to destroy a US drone on a surveillance mission. Washington says a US drone was shot down on June 6 with a missile fired from Yemen “that we assess had Iranian assistance”. 

On June 17, Iran’s atomic energy organisation says Iran will surpass the uranium stockpile limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal from June 27.

The next day, the US says it will deploy 1,000 more troops to the region, in addition to the 1,500 it had announced in late May.

US drone shot down 

On June 20, the IRGC says it shot down a US “spy drone” which violated Iranian airspace near the Strait of Hormuz, in “a clear message” that Tehran will defend its borders.

The US confirms the downing but says the drone was downed in international waters. Trump tells reporters at the White House that Iran “made a very big mistake” and the US “will not stand for it”.

Iran vows in response to go to the United Nations to prove Washington was “lying”.

 


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