[See second/third UPDATE at bottom of text. – J.E.]
In the time it has taken to assemble this post, President Trump has come out — after a meeting with his military staff at the White House — and suggested that someone in Iran was “loose and stupid” and may have shot the aircraft down unintentionally. That would indicate Trump isn’t anxious to pull a trigger, which I’m not going to jump on one way or another. He may know something the public doesn’t about the Iranian chain of command and intent attending this event. (I tend to doubt that, given the vague and speculative nature of his wording, and the unlikelihood of rogue shootdowns by assets under the command of the IRGC and hence the Ayatollah Khamenei.)
But Trump will know, as the military does, that this is a significant escalation.
*UPDATE 1*: Given immediate questions: here’s the take I favor at the moment. Trump may be offering Iran an “out,” as a last-ditch way to stave off a military reprisal. It’s a negotiating step. It’s up to Iran to either take it — which would have to be followed by de-escalation — or double down on the intent and culpability already signaled. Doing the latter would be Iran effectively forcing Trump’s hand in a reprisal.
Continuing with original text…
The drone that was shot down over Yemen on 6 June was an MQ-9 Reaper: a UAV based on the MQ-1 Predator airframe. The Reaper is a theater-level asset, to be sure (as opposed to a short-legged tactical drone), with a long range and usage generally related to covering large areas and theater-commander priorities.
But the aircraft shot down on Thursday was — according to the Pentagon — an RQ-4 Global Hawk. In this case, it’s a Global Hawk being operated by the Navy under its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS-D) program. (This is not the MQ-4C Triton alluded to in the first link above.) The Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-dwell ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) asset similar in employment to the venerable U-2, or the Cold War-era SR-71. (A brief comparison with the MQ-9: the MQ-9 is a turboprop with a wingspan of just under 66 feet. The RQ-4 is a turbofan jet with a wingspan of 131 feet, comparable to that of a 737.)
Where the MQ-9 operates up to a healthy 35,000 feet, the Global Hawk goes up to 60,000 feet, and provides synoptic multi-sensor coverage of very large areas.
The MQ-9 is capable of being armed, but the RQ-4 is not an armed platform. When it is operating in international air space, there can be no pretext for a non-belligerent actor to shoot it down.
Although we may see some comparisons in the coming hours to the U-2 shootdown by the Soviet Union in 1960, the comparison is invalid in a key respect: the U-2 was, in fact, operating in Soviet air space when it was shot down. The RQ-4 was not in Iranian air space (although the Iranians have claimed it was). The Pentagon says it wasn’t, and there is enough independent civil radar coverage to confirm that. It’s not something the U.S. military can get away with lying about.
The Iranians reportedly used a mobile air defense system in their Ra’ad (“Thunder”) series, a variant with the “3rd of Khordad” transporter-erector-launcher-and-radar (TELAR) suite employing the “truck” TELs described in the initial Iranian announcement of the shootdown. The altitude capability of the Taer-2 missile associated with this system is assessed at 70,000 feet, with a range of 100 km (50 nautical miles) or more (potentially up to 200 km/100 NM). The Ra’ad system is similar in design to the Russian Buk-M2 (NATO designation SA-17/”Grizzly”) anti-air missile system. The shootdown is feasible.
This shootdown is what our former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden would call a “big [effing] deal.” It’s not a deniable, proxy-executed act like the shootdown in Yemen. The Iranians have claimed it, and independent evidence would prove they did it.
It requires noting that the last 48 hours have seen additional rocket attacks on Iraqi compounds where Americans are located, in Mosul where we have advisers embedded at the presidential palace, and in Basra in the extreme south, where Exxon Mobil has personnel.
Trump tweeted this earlier:
Iran made a very big mistake!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2019
We’ll see where he’s going with his comments from the last hour. It’s hard to imagine simply letting this go. I doubt that’s what lies in store; nothing could more surely inaugurate a free-for-all of asymmetric harassment in the Gulf region. There may be ways other than military reprisal of impressing on Iran Trump’s seriousness. We can hope, until we see what comes next, that that may be effective, if it’s the choice Trump makes.
*UPDATE 2*: With two delightful graphic presentations, Iran offers her version of the event. It isn’t clear why Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s hand-drawn presentation was tweeted out. (We were doing better hand-drawn depictions of flight profiles than this back in World War I.) For some reason, the image is truncated and doesn’t show a full flight profile.
At 00:14 US drone took off from UAE in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace. It was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates (25°59'43"N 57°02'25"E) near Kouh-e Mobarak.
We've retrieved sections of the US military drone in OUR territorial waters where it was shot down. pic.twitter.com/pJ34Tysmsg
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) June 20, 2019
The “stealth mode” reference is a nice touch. The RQ-4 has no “stealth mode.”
A computer simulation of the RQ-4 flight as depicted by Iran’s Press TV shows the drone flying all the way out into the Arabian Sea and back (going as far as the Iranian port complex at Chabahar, which includes a naval base, before turning around). The Press TV depiction shows the drone supposedly entering Iranian air space in the Gulf of Oman, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, where enthusiastic graphics creators show it being hit and reduced to a flaming fireball.
— Press TV (@PressTV) June 20, 2019
*UPDATE 3*: CENTCOM’s version:
Here's the map the Pentagon put out with the latest statement. pic.twitter.com/HJzOpZjQei
— Sam LaGrone (@samlagrone) June 20, 2019