Iran’s Shooting Down of a U.S. Spy Drone is Not Justification to Go to War

by | Jun 23, 2019 |

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Going back to at least the beginning of the Cold War, the shooting down of spy aircraft and aerial vehicles has not escalated to military strikes, intervention, conflict, or full blown war. This one shouldn’t and probably will not either.

This past Thursday, Iran shot-down a highly sophisticated unmanned U.S. aerial surveillance asset, an RQ-4 Global Hawk HALE (high altitude, long endurance), widely known as a drone, “reportedly” over international waters. The two governments disputed precisely where the aircraft was shot down, with Iran saying it downed the drone over its territorial waters near the Strait of Hormuz, and home of Iran’s Jask Naval Base. At the same time, U.S. military officials disputed whether the unmanned aircraft was in Iranian airspace or over international waters. President Trump downplayed the attack, calling it a mistake for obvious reasons to tamp down the opportunity for Iran to escalate or justify further aggression on Tehran’s part.

While he may still order a follow-up retaliation, President Trump sought to ease tensions, first suggesting the downing of the Global Hawk drone by an Iranian surface-to-air missile was inadvertent, or a miscalculation or misjudgment by a rogue Iranian military officer or military unit.

“I have a feeling it was a mistake made by someone who shouldn’t have been doing that,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

Later, once he did order a strike, he called it back ten minutes prior to launch, due to critical and timely intelligence that indicated the intended critical targets were no longer accessible and the likelihood of a high number of civilian casualties was not worth the cost of the loss of a single unmanned aerial drone. A separate highly classified pre-strike op against select elements of Iran’s command and control infrastructure may have also had a definitive impact on the President’s decision to terminate the overall operation and stand down the strike package before it launched.

Of course, many observers have been concerned that, given the background, this could push the two nations further toward conflict and war. Fortunately, spy flight shoot-downs have historically not escalated in the past. This one probably won’t, either, particularly because it was an unmanned and unarmed drone.

In an effort to help Americans understand this better, it is important to understand the history and reality of what we are actually dealing with. Equally, it is important what we need to know about spying, intelligence collection, reconnaissance, and surveillance using manned aircraft and or unmanned drones and potential military escalation, as the possibility of a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran looms.

Understand that spying aircraft shoot-downs usually don’t lead to military escalation, and in fact, history has validated that. Throughout the Cold War, the post-Cold War, post-Soviet Union period up until now, no downing of a spy aircraft manned or unmanned drone has ever resulted in an escalation in military action or conflict. In fact, even the 1960 U-2 Frances Gary Powers shoot down and capture did not result in a single shot fired. Likewise, over the course of the Cold War over 175 U.S. aircraft known as ferret aircraft were shot-down over the former Soviet Union with 200 pilots being killed. In each and every case none caused an increase in tensions or increase in military action with Moscow. It should be noted these incidents went completely unreported as they keep secret to protect the fact that the U.S. was spying on the former Soviet Union.

Similarly, with regard to drones, while shooting down drones does periodically generate publicity, it has not led to escalation nor conflict. Understand however, what spying is all about. Historically, the practice of espionage or spying is illegal. Despite International Law, regarding all aspects of spying — for the most part it has come down to the fact that espionage and spying operates on a “legal until caught” basis.

This brings me to the reason for the U.S. to use manned spy aerial vehicles versus unmanned, i.e.; drones. Obviously, one of the reasons countries use drones is to deploy military assets while reducing the risk to their own soldiers and limiting the prospects of escalation, along with the risk of death and or capture. As I have pointed out as one of the national security experts to address the issue understand that shooting down a drone does not generate the same level of public outrage as shooting down a manned piloted aircraft. So up until this week such an event generally has not galvanized the case for an escalation or increased level of conflict or full blown war.

In fact, strategic in the realm of international espionage, the use of drones has caused the opposite concern, that this so-called light footprint approach to war disconnects the public from costs of conflict and creates public apathy rather than accountability. Thus, shooting down a drone, even when the countries involved are the United States and Iran, is unlikely to be a cause for war, though it certainly raises tensions.

From a military perspective, shooting down a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone has some significance, in that it is a much more expensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset than the more commonly known MQ-9 Reaper drone. Thus, Iran’s action is certainly costly to the U.S. military — but a lot less costly than if it had shot down an equivalent aircraft with U.S. military personnel aboard. President Trump said as much in his comments on Friday afternoon with regard to proportionality versus the number of people being killed on the ground in Iran.

From my standpoint and experience, it was an obvious cover story generated by the fact based on near simultaneous intelligence information that the actual situation on the ground had changed requiring the operation to be change or scrubbed. Of course, due to the fact that the situational change (on the ground) was driven and based on classified and highly sensitive intelligence sources and methods, the President made the decision to terminate and stand down the operation. As a result, the humanitarian justification provided the rational decision as to why he scrubbed the mission and operation to strike select targets inside Iran. Nevertheless, likely truth is that intelligence showed the situation change, and President Trump didn’t want to have human casualties in the response to a valid military target. Regardless, the situation resulted in Iran moving in civilians to be used as human shields.

Of course, not withstanding, the other factor that could make this situation different is that U.S.-Iran tensions were already increasing.

Similarly, over the course of the past decade, in 2011, Iran supposedly and allegedly used a hi-tech spoofing technique — hacking the drone’s controls — to bring down a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone and commandeer it into Iran, causing tensions but no notable escalation. And, in 2018, an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian equivalent of the RQ-170 drone, a rare instance of direct military confrontation though against the backdrop of perennial diplomatic tensions.

Understand that for whatever strategic reasons, political, diplomatic economic, military or other; countries go to war when they have decided it is in their best, vital and or necessary interests to fight. Given the issues laid out in my previous and this article, shooting down an RQ-4 drone — even in international waters — should not fundamentally change the likelihood of escalation, but it raises tensions, and if this incident escalates into a larger military confrontation, it suggests the United States and Iran were already on the path to war for other reasons.

We should also understand that the risk of crisis escalation, particularly with Iran, is higher with the use of drones because drones inherently have two uses, and from Iran’s point of view, it’s nearly impossible to know whether a Reaper or Predator drone is simply conducting surveillance or is about to conduct a strike. As a result there’s uncertainty and ambiguity, with the possibility of miscalculation. Again, we should go back to the notion and understanding that like any form of spying and espionage the business of such is highly risk adverse – if identified and caught in the act there is the likelihood of being shot at or shot-down and killed, captured, tried and executed, or other.

So it’s always better to risk an unmanned drone than risking a person’s life, therefore even the shooting down of a Predator or Reaper drone is unlikely to lead the United States into war. Why? Because these drones are unmanned. This obvious fact has important consequences for crisis management. Drones never come home in coffins. They do not have grieving families.

There will be no Black Hawk Down or Benghazi moments in which video footage showing the death and desecration of American troops leads to anguished demands that the president do something.

Because drones pose no risk to the warfighter, they remove a key emotional element that influences domestic politics and complicates crisis management.

While the U.S. and Iran trade barbs over whether the Global Hawk was flying in international or Iranian airspace, which it most likely was and was tracked and fired on while exiting Iranian airspace over the Strait of Hormuz — the possibility of an escalation of broader military conflict exists. But it’s important to remember that the most dangerous risks of crisis escalation still involve humans. So I trust that President Trump will, through calculated, strategic and well versed decision-making, do the right thing in the best interest of America. He will prevail in some way shape or form, he’ll be damned sure of that!

U.S. military image from surveillance video shows the U.S. drone shoot down over the Strait of Hormuz. (Image: Reuters)

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Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer and special mission intelligence officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to multiple Joint Special Operations units and with the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force and international and foreign advisory positions. He served as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism.

Waurishuk is a former White House National Security Council staffer and a former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C. He served as a senior advisor to the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and served as Vice President of the Special Ops-OPSEC.

Currently, he is the Chairman of the Hillsborough County (FL) Republican Executive Committee and Party and serves on the Executive Board of the Republican Party of Florida.

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