Iran’s Home-Grown Missile System Downs U.S. Military’s Most Advanced Drone

Iran may have a greater capability of defending its airspace than the Pentagon believed.

The Iranian military knocked an expensive, state-of-the-art U.S. military drone out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile.

Footage of the U.S. drone being shot down.

The aircraft was a U.S. Navy variant of Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude long endurance drone. It is one of the U.S. military’s most advanced pieces of machinery, and is deployed by both the Army and the Navy.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk Versus …

The Global Hawk is used by the military to conduct reconnaissance operations—often over maritime and coastal areas—and is relied on heavily by the Pentagon in the Persian Gulf region.

With a price tag ranging between $123 million and over $200 million, the Global Hawk is more expensive than the F-35 fighter jet. The Pentagon has only about 35 of them, and Global Hawks have logged more than 250,000 flight hours since 2001.

The RQ-4 is the base model of the aircraft on which upgrades and modifications have been added. It’s a huge airborne surveillance platform—closer to a nimble satellite than your everyday commercial drone.

It carries multiple sensor payloads, including inverse synthetic aperture radar, optical and infrared full-motion video, a maritime moving target detection system, automatic identification capabilities, and the Link 16 encrypted military data link network. The Global Hawk uses this suite of technologies to gather high-resolution imagery of large areas of terrain, in all types of weather, at day or at night. It can fly above rough weather and winds, scanning the ground for more than 24 hours at a time. In one mission it can cover and record, in near real time, a stretch of land the size of Illinois.

“The range of the sensors on board would allow you to see, certainly, areas of Iran of interest, while you’re still in international airspace,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

It’s huge for a drone, too, with a wingspan of 116.2 feet—comparable to a Boeing 737—a length of 44.4 feet, and a height of 15.2 feet. The Global Hawk is also semiautonomous: it can process orders, carry out its mission, and return to base without any human direction. And with the aircraft’s range, it can fly across the Pacific Ocean without stopping to refuel.

MythBusters episode on the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

The Global Hawk is a state-of-the-art surveillance asset. But it’s big, it’s slow, it doesn’t carry any weapons, and it doesn’t have stealth capabilities—which make the aircraft vulnerable. It compensates for these shortcomings by flying high in the atmosphere, where it is out of the range of any air defense systems. The drone can climb above 65,000 feet—almost twice as high as a passenger jet—at an altitude high enough to see the curve of the Earth.

So how did Iran manage to bring one down?

… the Khordad 15 Missile Defense System

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps claims that it shot down the drone with its made-in-Iran Khordad 15 surface-to-air missile system, which was first unveiled in 2014 and was recently upgraded.

Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami claimed the Khordad can detect six targets within a range of 93 miles at a maximum altitude of 17 miles—and intercept them in a range of 75 miles. Stealth jets can be targeted at 53 miles and hit within 28 miles. The system is mobile and can become operational within five minutes.

The Khordad is equipped with the Sayyad 3 missile—another Iranian product based on the Hawk missiles the U.S. once sold to the Shah of Iran—and uses a passive phased array radar that can target multiple targets at once. The Sayyad 3 can track a target 93 miles away and intercept it within a range of 74 miles.

Tal Inbar, an Israel military aviation expert, said the Khordad has greater capabilities than other Iranian surface-to-air missile launchers that are based on the U.S. Patriot missile and the Russian S-200 system. “The Iranian systems cannot match Western-made ones, but their industry is [making] huge efforts to improve the products,” he said.

It appears that the Pentagon may have underestimated the Iranian military’s capabilities to patrol its own airspace. The Global Hawk “flies at a very high altitude, so the fact that the Iranians were able to shoot it down shows that they have some pretty significant capabilities,” said Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University. “In some ways, the shoot down is a signaling mechanism to the United States that Iran is more capable than we might have assumed.”

The U.S. and Iran have made conflicting claims about the location of the aircraft when it was shot down: the Pentagon claims the aircraft was over international waters, while Iran alleges that the drone had violated Iranian airspace, prompting its destruction.

New York Times infographic on disputed claims of where the drone was shot down.

Iran and the U.S. dispute where the drone was shot down. (Picture courtesy of  New York Times)

Regardless of who is in the right, this attack could signify a shift in the fragile balance between the two adversaries. The Pentagon doesn’t have many Global Hawks to spare, and the replacement price is significant. The U.S. military may have discovered that conducting surveillance missions at the edge of Iranian territory just got a lot more complicated.

Read more about the growing use of drones by the military at Drone Wars: Gremlins Versus the Kremlin.