Downing of US drone raises stakes in Gulf showdown

Developments show that Iran is raising the stakes in the competition for anti-access, area denial in the Gulf.
Saturday 29/06/2019
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh (R), Iran’s head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, speaks to media next to debris from a downed US drone put on display  in the capital, Tehran,  June 21, 2019. (Tasnim News Agency/ AFP)
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh (R), Iran’s head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, speaks to media next to debris from a downed US drone put on display in the capital, Tehran, June 21, 2019. (Tasnim News Agency/ AFP)

As tensions grew dangerously high between the United States and Iran, Tehran shot down June 20 an American unmanned surveillance system over Gulf waters.

The RQ-4A Global Hawk, a high-altitude and long-endurance platform that provides wide-area surveillance using high-resolution synthetic aperture radar was taken out by Iran’s Raad air defence system positioned in Garuk, close to the Strait of Hormuz.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that the US military had violated Iran’s airspace and that his country stands ready to defend “every inch” of its land, sea and aerial territories.

The United States refuted Iran’s claim of violating its airspace, saying that the RQ-4A Global Hawk was actually in international airspace some 18 nautical miles (34km) from Iranian airspace when it was brought down.

US President Donald Trump then pulled back from retaliatory strikes against Iran, reportedly at the last minute. With its weapons “cocked and loaded,” the United States was ready for a limited strike targeting specific Iranian military infrastructure on coastal sites, but this invariably risked collateral damage and triggering a full-scale conflict.

Iran’s downing of the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk — which cost an estimated $200 million — was a high-risk move in itself. But given that there was no loss of life, it was hardly straghtforward for the US to decide on an immediate, proportionate military response with the risk of conflict already so high.

Iran’s air defences downing an American surveillance platform was not a game-changer, but it does represent an important moment in this brewing crisis.

The Raad, Persian for “Thunder,” is an indigenously produced medium-range air defence system designed to counter air threats, including fighter aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to ranges of around 50km.

The Raad forms part of Iran’s increasingly capable national air defences, which now also include different versions of the Russian-made S-300, S-200 and the Bavar-373, which Iran developed on its own as a replacement for the S-300PMU2 that Moscow withheld delivery of for almost seven years until 2015.

With its combination of air defence systems and radar installations along its coast, Iran is able to monitor air movements some distance out into Gulf waters and also fire at air targets as far as 200km away.

The American account that its RQ-4A Global Hawk was flying in international airspace is highly plausible because after sabotage attacks against oil tankers transiting the area in recent weeks – which Iran denied involvement in — the United States and other regional players logically need to boost maritime surveillance. The United States and a host of other countries have been busy working to reinforce regional maritime security over the past few weeks.

RQ-4A Global Hawk is used for tracking ships, gathering intelligence on geolocation, speed and classification, including by descending through cloud layers to gain closer views of targets. The downed RQ-4A Global Hawk was likely tasked with providing round-the-clock surveillance of shipping lanes and looking out for suspicious movements of small, fast boats like the ones Iranian special forces are alleged to have used to attack tankers.

An alarming conclusion from Iran’s unexpected move is that it fits into Iran’s anti-access, area denial strategy, an approach that is geographically focused in and around the Strait of Hormuz but is now arguably being extended into the aerial domain. It is a highly contentious move.

The Gulf is a relatively small theatre for military operations, where only small distances separate friendly and hostile forces at times. As the United States and other international forces step up deployments and, in particular, surveillance, it will become increasingly difficult for Iran to repeat the type of attacks it has been charged with recently.

If Iran aims to preserve its ability to conduct more such attacks in the future, even selectively, then it needs to complicate the environment for surveillance and monitoring activities. This requirement becomes even more critical if Iran believes there is a real possibility of conflict soon.

These developments, therefore, show that Iran is raising the stakes in the competition for anti-access, area denial in the Gulf, in particular by focusing on disrupting surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities, even at high risks.

The United States will be forced to review how and where it operates its growing deployments of surveillance and intelligence-gathering assets so they are better protected, but more incidents like this could trigger a dramatic escalation that the region can ill afford. But in these emerging circumstances, the United States will also now be looking to increase precisely those activities.

Meanwhile, Trump is aiming to exert more economic pressure on Iran, announcing additional sanctions targeting its supreme leader and senior officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The international community must come together quickly to find ways to reduce tensions as the growing showdown between the United States and Iran edges towards a dangerous, direct confrontation.

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