Posted on June 24, 2019 by Ilias Kiritsis
Situation Report Written by Intelligence Officer & ARX Maritime Correspondent, I. Vlad Sutea
On June 20 at 11:35 GMT, an Iranian Sayyad 2C surface-to-air missile (SAM) downed a U.S. Navy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s IRNA news agency claims that the UAV was shot down when it entered Iranian airspace with its transponder off. Fars News Agency published a video, which shows the launch of the SAM missile from a Khordad the 3rd system.
Map released by US CENTCOM and a frame capture by a P-8 Poseidon operating in the area
Washington denies that any U.S. aircraft has entered Iranian territory and maintains that the UAV operated exclusively in international airspace. A map issued by the U.S. Central Command locates the position of the UAV 21 miles off the Iranian coast and at a height of 22,209 feet.
The downed UAV is a RQ-4A BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator), essentially a prototype of the forthcoming latest generation MQ-4C. This type of UAV has zero penetration capabilities, as it was exclusively built for maritime ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions such as standoff high-altitude blue water surveillance. The flight over the Strait of Hormuz was likely a routine mission, as the U.S. Navy and Air Force regularly monitor the Iranian coastline to update intelligence on military activates, and in particular communications and the electronic order of battle (radars, air defences). In the aftermath of the recent tanker attacks, these ISR rounds are crucial for intercepting Iranian military chatter and monitoring Iranian ports, which could provide early warning for upcoming attacks and enhance the understanding of previous events. Drawing from ADS-B data, the UAV was likely deployed from the American east coast to Al-Dhafra airbase, Untied Arab Emirate (UAE), on June 15.
Flight path of the RQ-4 UAV deployed to al-Dhafra airbase (UAE) source: https://twitter.com/AircraftSpots/status/1141624750910758912
Five days ago, the U.S. Central Command issued a statement revealing a series of Iranian attacks on U.S. UAVs in the region:
- June 6, 2019 – Iranian-backed Houthi downed a US UAV, using a 2K12 Kub (NATO reporting name: SA-6) in Yemen;
- June 13, 2019 – a modified shoulder-mounted man-portable air defence system 9K32 Strela (SA-7) attempted to shoot down a US MQ-9 over the Gulf of Oman to disrupt the surveillance of M/T “Kokuka Courageous” after the attack. The SA-7 SAM missed the MQ-9 by one kilometre.
Fars News Agency allegedly showcased downed US UAV RQ-4
- Notice to Airmen issued over the Strait of Hormuz, some aviation companies have already cancelled or changed flights that transit the area (e.g. Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, United Airlines);
- 4 percent increase in crude oil price;
- AP Moeller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping firm, has altered its route through the Strait of Hormuz.
- Potential US military response (see below).
US MILITARY RESPONSE
- Kinetic: Insider sources within the Trump administration have told the New York Times that the White House initiated plans for a limited cruise missile strike on Iranian air defence radars and missile batteries. However, Donald Trump changed his mind in the last moment. A Ticonderoga guided missile destroyer and other vessels have been put on alert for 72 hours.
- Non-kinetic: A cyber-attack on Iran’s electric grid is also believed to be under review. Nevertheless, heightened political rhetoric and additional economic sanctions could end up being the only response. The Associated Press learned from two official sources that the Trump administration authorized a cyber-attack on Iranian military infrastructure. The operation conducted by the US Cyber Command supposedly disabled some computer systems that control missile batteries. Washington also announced new ‘hard-hitting’ sanctions on Iran.
While military ‘muscle-flexing’ has been an integral component of President Trump’s “maximum pressure on Iran” campaign, yesterday Trump repeatedly mentioned that he wants to avoid war at all costs. He reminded the press that he campaigned on a platform of disengaging from the Middle East and that he does not want to start a new war. President Trump even seems to have given Iran a “backdoor” out of the situation by stating:
TRUMP: “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. Fortunately, that drone was unarmed. There was no man in it and there was no -- it was just -- it was over international waters, clearly over international waters, but we didn't have a man or woman in the drone. We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you. It would have made a big, big difference. But I have a feeling, and it maybe wrong and I may be right, but I'm right a lot. I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn't have been doing what they did. I think they made a mistake. And I'm not just talking the country made a mistake. I think somebody under the command of that country made a big mistake.”
REPORTER: Are you saying you don’t think it was an intentional strike of the drone?
TRUMP: I don’t know. 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. We’ll be able to report back, and you’ll understand exactly what happened. But it was a very foolish move. That I can tell you.”
- The US is likely still considering additional ‘measured responses’ (i.e. non-casualty attacks) that will reinstate a credible deterrence against Iran. However, the risk of uncontrolled escalation remains high, as it is impossible to estimate how Iran would react to an attack. Tehran knows that it is vital for Trump’s re-election to avoid a new war in the Middle East.
- Iran will seek to fight its way out of the U.S. economic sanctions, which endanger over 60 percent of the Iranian regime’s revenue. By contesting the regional airspace and signalling willingness to close the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is showing that it does possess leverage over the American and global economy.