Iran shot down an American drone on Thursday, supposedly over international waters, which the United States deemed an “unprovoked attack” in the Strait of Hormuz. It’s a further escalation of rising conflict between these countries.
In the aftermath, an American reprisal airstrike against Iranian missile defense systems was first approved, then canceled, by President Trump. Too many leaks from Washington insiders show the Iranians the opposite of what the U.S. hopes to project. Rather than demonstrating restraint, this waffling on a response tells Tehran the U.S. is fragmented and weak.
And the use of the sophisticated but aging BAMS-D RQ-4A Global Hawk drones against “a near-peer adversary” is setting the stage for American drones to be shot down with alarming regularity.
After the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the tensions with Tehran are evident, but in reality, this has been the situation for many years. The Iranian al-Quds proxy forces operating in Iraq are responsible for hundreds of U.S. combat deaths by advising insurgent forces. Quds are also implicated in other terrorist attacks, including the Marine bombing in Beirut in 1983.
The U.S. recently charged that the Iranians were behind the recent spate of oil tanker attacks in the Persian Gulf. Then on Thursday, the downing of the American drone drove the escalation of tensions to the breaking point.
The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Spokesman, Navy Captain Bill Urban, released a confirmation statement: “U.S. Central Command can confirm that a U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (or BAMS-D) ISR aircraft was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile system while operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 11:35 p.m. GMT on June 19, 2019.”
The Iranian official news agency Sepah News claimed its Revolutionary Guards shot down a U.S. “spy drone” over the southern province of Hormozgan.
The U.S. was quick to deny this, “No U.S. drone was operating in Iranian airspace today. Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” CENTCOM released in a statement. “This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace.”
The U.S. prepared to launch an air strike at a limited number of Iranian radars and missile batteries Thursday night. As has been reported by numerous national news outlets, the president approved these strikes before abruptly calling them off.
It isn’t known whether President Trump actually approved these strikes before changing his mind, or if he withheld approval while conversing with his Cabinet members until he decided. But several administration sources reported to news agencies that the airstrikes were approved and then shut down.
The debate on how to handle this latest development went as one would expect. Most Democratic leaders urged against any action, while U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton—the Trump administration’s biggest hawk—no doubt pushed for decisive military action. Trump is also reported to have “moved to ease tensions with Iran,” according to CNN, stating the drone attack “was probably an unintentional ‘mistake’.”
The debate itself is nothing new—every administration will discuss several courses of action during a development such as this most recent event. One can easily re-read the debates during the Cuban Missile Crisis or any other large decision to see that.
But the purposeful leaking of the canceling of a military operation at the eleventh hour is damaging. CBS News cited two sources within the administration that the operation was already underway when the president abruptly called it off. One official went so far as to say “It was a go, and then it wasn’t.” Another simply said, “Cold feet.”
CBS News also referred to European allies of the United States as possibly having reached out to the president to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The offices of Teresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, released statements regarding the situation, urging restraint and not to follow through with an escalation of hostilities.
However, the leaking of information by insiders, even administration officials, is a dangerous precedent, and will only serve to embolden Iran, not convince it to seek a diplomatic end to this latest crisis.
The RQ-4 Global Hawk drone is an expensive and sensitive piece of equipment with a $130-$176 million price tag: more an F-35 Joint Strike fighter. And it’s a vulnerable target to not only Iranian but also Russian and Chinese air defense systems. In an interesting piece by Patrick Tucker on Defense One, he points out the Pentagon had the opportunity to develop a more survivable drone several years ago, but canceled the project due to costs.
Global Hawks are fine for dealing with the Taliban or ISIS insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. But against a “near-peer” adversary, such as the military is gearing up for now? It’s easily brought down.
Tucker points out in his article that the Iranians:
Islamic Revolution Guards Corps officials declared that they had shot down the drone with an Iranian-made Khordad-3 air defense system. Given the RQ-4’s usual operating altitude, the interceptor missile was likely a TALASH 2B. A representative from U.S. Central Command declined to confirm the missile type, but did say that Iran did not use its most sophisticated air-defense system, the Russian-made S-300, in the engagement.
In other words, the U.S. military lost one of its most advanced intelligence drones to a mediocre radar and missile. That reflects a lack of suitable next-generation drones to carry out important intelligence and reconnaissance missions against adversaries with actual air defenses.
That is a dangerous development for future use in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
But while certain hawks are calling for open hostilities with Iran, the Trump administration—for the time being—has pulled back from that. Getting into another conflict in the Middle East makes no sense for anyone in the region, and at this juncture, certainly not the United States.