The International Hawk Drone Iran Shot Down Was a $220M Surveillance Monster


Early Thursday morning, Iran shot down a United States unmanned aerial automobile over the Strait of Hormuz, which runs between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Iran recognized the drone as an RQ-4A International Hawk, a $220 million UAV that acts as an enormous surveillance platform within the sky. The assault marks an escalation with tensions already working excessive between the US and Iran—significantly due to the worth and technical sensitivity of the downed drone.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stated on Thursday that the Northrup Grumman-made International Hawk—a part of a multi-billion-dollar program that dates again to 2001—had entered Iranian airspace and crashed in Iranian waters; US Central Command confirmed the time and normal location of the assault, however insists that the drone was flying in worldwide airspace.

The incident comes on the heels of one other state of affairs final week during which the US accused Iran of attacking two gas tankers within the Gulf of Oman. The US additionally stated that Iran had attempted to shoot down a special UAV—an MQ-9 Reaper drone—however failed. The Pentagon also linked Iran to an assault on a Reaper drone in Yemen two weeks in the past that prompted the automobile to crash. Thursday’s assault, although, focused an enormous and far more costly surveillance drone, and sure represents a extra particular escalation.

“There’s lots happening right here, and we’re in all probability solely seeing a few of it,” says Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Protection Venture on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research. “It is a dearer, increased altitude, extra succesful, long-range intelligence surveillance reconnaissance craft. In the event that they’re capturing down plane in worldwide airspace over worldwide waters that is more likely to elicit some type of measured reprisal.”

“There might all the time be tremendous secret spy tech onboard that we don’t learn about.”

Ulrike Franke, European Council on International Relations

Global Hawks are large surveillance platforms, in operation since 2001, with a wingspan of greater than 130 ft and a most takeoff weight of greater than 16 tons, equal to roughly seven shipping containers of cocaine. They’ve a variety of greater than 12,000 nautical miles, can fly at strikingly excessive altitudes of 60,000 ft, and may keep aloft for 34 hours straight. They don’t have any offensive capabilities; their worth lies of their capability to mix vary, vantage level, and persistence with highly effective surveillance sensors to observe floor or maritime exercise in nice element. In accordance with evaluation by the Authorities Accountability Workplace, International Hawks have at instances cost the US greater than $220 million to fabricate and equip.

International Hawks typically embrace infrared and thermal imaging, radar, and electro-optical imaging of their arsenal of sensors. And their large dimension and weight capability permits the drones to make the most of tools like big telephoto digicam lenses to get detailed views of targets. However as Ulrike Franke, a coverage fellow on the European Council on International Relations and a drone researcher, notes, the US army custom-outfits totally different autos for various missions, making it unsure what actual tools this explicit International Hawk carried. “There might all the time be tremendous secret spy tech onboard that we don’t learn about,” says Franke.

It is doubtless, although, that this explicit International Hawk was a typical surveillance workhorse, says Franke, and was downed for geopolitical causes quite than with the precise objective of technological reconnaissance. It is unclear if elements of the drone are even recoverable, or if it was destroyed within the assault. Iran memorably captured a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone in December 2011, and later claimed that it had reverse engineered the automobile’s {hardware} and software program to repeat its know-how. Sentinel drones are thought to make use of stealth know-how for inconspicuous aerial reconnaissance. Final yr, Israeli officers stated they’d intercepted an Iranian drone that gave the impression to be a “copy” of a Sentinel.

As for whether or not the International Hawk was flying over Iranian airspace, researchers say that definitive proof would require the US releasing particulars concerning the drone’s flight path. “Whether or not they need to launch that’s extra of a coverage choice,” Karako says. “However to date CentCom is insistent that it was in worldwide airspace.”

It is at the moment unknown at what altitude the drone was flying when it was downed, but when it was in its excessive altitude zone it might have been a considerably troublesome goal to nab. Nonetheless, Franke emphasizes that such an interception is throughout the bounds of Iran’s identified capabilities.

“A part of the promoting level is International Hawks fly so excessive and usually they need to be safe from being shot down,” Franke says. “It’s not extremely troublesome to shoot down a system like that, but it surely’s comparatively troublesome. It exhibits resolve on the political facet.”

President Donald Trump initially tweeted on Thursday that, “Iran made a really huge mistake!” In later comments, although, he appeared to take a much less aggressive tone, saying, “I discover it arduous to imagine it was intentional.” Analysts say, although, that whereas it isn’t stunning that Iran possesses the intercept know-how to shoot the drone down, it might have required a radar-guided, surface-to-air missile system—seemingly both an SA-6 or SA-7 SAM given to Iran by Russia. A extra versatile heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile system couldn’t have hit a goal at excessive altitude. In different phrases, you possibly can’t take down a International Hawk except you actually, actually imply to.

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