Erik Hildebrandt/Northrop Grumman/Handout via REUTERS
- Iranian forces shot down a US surveillance drone late Wednesday evening, escalating an already tense situation between Washington and Tehran.
- The drone was a US Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS-D) aircraft — a RQ-4A Global Hawk High-Altitude, Long, Endurance (HALE) drone.
- This high-value aircraft is one of the US military’s most advanced unmanned aerial systems, and it has a price tag much higher than that of an F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
- Drone experts say this particular unmanned system was supposed to be nearly impossible to shoot down.
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Iranian forces took out a US unmanned aerial vehicle late Wednesday evening with a surface-to-air missile, US Central Command confirmed. The drone the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot out of the sky happens to be one of the US military’s most advanced high-altitude unmanned aircraft.
The Iranians shot down a US Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS-D) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, specifically a RQ-4A Global Hawk High-Altitude, Long, Endurance (HALE) drone which the military uses to conduct recon operations over oceans and coastal waterways.
The US military called the incident "an unprovoked attack on a US surveillance asset in international airspace" over the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf. The Iranians have accused the US drone of entering Iranian airspace, an allegation CENTCOM characterized as completely false.
The RQ-4 is one of the most advanced high-altitude drones being employed operationally, The War Zone explained. These UAVs, Northrop Grumman aircraft that have been used extensively in the Persian Gulf, rely on a suite of high-end electronic sensors and other intelligence gathering systems to peer into other countries.
The aircraft, which is used by both the US Air Force and the US Navy, has a price tag higher than the US military’s new F-35 stealth fighters. A Global Hawk has a unit cost of roughly $123 million while an F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter costs only $89 million.
"This isn’t a throwaway drone whose loss the US will just shrug off," Ulrike E. Franke, a drone expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said on Twitter. But it’s not just the price tag that makes the loss of this drone a big deal. "This drone was specifically designed to be largely invulnerable," she added.
"The RQ-4 flies at upwards of 65,000 feet," Tyler Rogoway, editor of the War Zone, wrote, "so this would have been a sophisticated radar-guided surface-to-air missile that shot the aircraft down, not a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile."
Iran claims that the IRGC shot down the US drone with an upgraded Khordad missile defense system, which Breaking Defense reports can detect and track targets 95 miles away and down them at a distance of 30 miles.
The latest incident comes just days after an the crew of an Iranian boat fired an SA-7 surface-to-air missile at a MQ-9 Reaper drone, a roughly $15 million drone, but missed. Wednesday’s shoot-down marks a serious escalation in tensions between the US and Iran.
"If the Iranians come after US citizens, US assets or [the] US military, we reserve the right to respond with a military action, and they need to know that," Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters earlier this week.
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