20 Jun 19. Strait of Hormuz: US official confirms Iranian claim that it shot down US drone on 20 June. On 20 June, an unnamed US official stated that a US Navy MQ-4C Triton drone had been shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile (SAM) in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. Earlier, the Iranian state news agency had claimed that its Revolutionary Guard force had shot down a US RQ-4 Global Hawk drone in Iranian airspace near Kuhmobarak in the southern province of Hormozgan on the Strait of Hormuz during the morning of 20 June. No details have been released regarding the type of SAM system employed or the altitude at which the engagement took place. However, both the MQ-4C and RQ-4 are capable of operating up to altitudes of around FL600. Previously, an official US statement on 16 June included an assessment that a modified Russian-made 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 GRAIL) man-portable air-defence system (MANPADS) was employed by Iranian forces in an unsuccessful attempt to shoot-down a US military MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Gulf of Oman on 13 June. The unsuccessful MANPADS engagement of the drone reportedly occurred in between the first and second attacks on two commercial tanker vessels in the Gulf of Oman, which the US and UK have attributed to Iran. According to the US FAA, the most capable variants of MANPADS can pose a threat to aircraft at altitudes up to 25,000 feet AGL. On 16 May, the US FAA issued a NOTAM and background information for the airspace over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman due to increased political tensions and heightened military activities in the region, stating that “Iran has publicly made threats to US military operations” (KICZ A0015/19). The US FAA has an additional standing NOTAM and background information advising operators to exercise caution when transiting Iranian airspace (FIR Tehran (OIIX)) due to unannounced military activity and missile launches (NOTAM KICZ A0016/18).
While the altitude of the US drone when it was engaged by the SAM system has not been confirmed, given the operational capabilities of the MQ-4C Triton – and assuming that was the type downed – it is possible that a high-altitude conventional SAM system was used during the engagement. The confirmed Iranian use of such a system to target a US military drone in-flight over the Strait of Hormuz would be highly concerning as the airspace in the vicinity of this area includes numerous high-traffic ATS routes used by civil aviation operators. In its background information to the NOTAM published on 16 May, the US FAA stated that certain Iranian conventional SAM systems capable at altitudes well above FL260 “have ranges that encompass key international air routes over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman”. For example, commercial satellite imagery from late May confirms that Iran has deployed one of its four Russian-made S-300PMU2 Favorit (SA-20PMU2 GARGOYLE) conventional SAM battalions to the Persian Gulf coastal city of Asaluyeh in the southwest province of Bushehr. The SA-20PMU2 has the ability to engage aircraft at altitudes well above FL800 and at ranges out to 120 miles (193 km). In addition to the above, the US National Security Advisor has stated that notable US armed forces deployments to the Middle East region since 16 April were “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” related to Iranian military and proxy group activity in the Persian Gulf region. Short-notice airspace restrictions for Iranian airspace may be enacted should regional tensions significantly escalate within FIR Tehran (OIIX) portions of the Persian Gulf and/or Gulf of Oman. We continue to assess Iran, to include over-water areas of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, to be a MODERATE risk airspace operating environment above FL260 and HIGH risk below FL260; this is being kept under constant review.
Risk area recommendation: Comprehensive risk mitigation measures
- Flights below FL260 not advised; essential flights over FL260 via measures below
- Defer diverting from flight plan with the exception of life threatening situations
- Security and operational risk-based identification of pre-planned divert airports
- Reliable and redundant communications with an established communications plan
- Fully-coordinated and robust emergency response plan supplemented by asset tracking
Approvals: As a precaution, conduct operational risk-based identification of divert and alternate airports for flight schedules with planned stops at aerodromes in the country or with overflight of the airspace. Operators are advised to ensure flight plans are correctly filed, attain proper special approvals for flight operations to sensitive locations and obtain relevant overflight permits prior to departure. In addition, ensure crews scheduled to operate to or over the country in the near term are fully aware of the latest security situation.
Missile Launches: Unannounced rocket and missile launches that transit airspace used by civilian aircraft pose a latent threat to operations at all altitudes. The country has a history of not issuing adequate notice of activities in its airspace that could affect flight safety. Multiple safety of flight concerns emanate from a situation where a missile malfunctions during the boost, mid-course or terminal phases of flight. Such an event would cause the missile to fly an unplanned trajectory and altitude profile which could expose overflying aircraft to mid-air collision, route diversion and or debris splashdown issues. Leading civil aviation governing bodies have standing notices advising operators of the threat to civil aviation in the airspace due to unannounced military activity, rocket test firings and or missile launches.
Shoot-down Policy: The country has an aggressive air intercept and shoot-down policy which allows air and air defence forces to intercept and disable aerial targets violating airspace regulations. Military air and air defence assets may be employed to down aerial targets under the auspice of the policy. While legal civil aviation flights are unlikely to be directly targeted, there remains a latent but credible risk of misidentification and interception by military air and air defence assets. (Source: Osprey)
BATTLESPACE Comment: This move confirms the main reason for the US reluctance to launch wholesale attacks into Iran. For many years Iran has had the best layered missile defence system in the world and this move proves their point.