A Closer Look at the RQ-4 Triton, the Recon Drone Iran Just Shot Down

Designed to spy on maritime environments, Triton is the largest drone in the U.S. Military.

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  • On June 19th, Iran shot down an RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone, according to both Iranian sources and the Pentagon.
  • Iran claims the drone was flying in Iranian airspace, but the U.S. government denies that claim.
  • The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a unmanned, non-lethal reconnaissance drone, so no U.S. personnel were killed or injured in the attack. However, experts fear the attack only increases tensions between the two countries.

    The Pentagon confirmed early this morning that an unmanned U.S. aircraft, a RQ-4 Global Hawk, was shot down by Iranian military forces. The Pentagon described the shootdown, which it says took place over international waters, as an “unprovoked attack.” The RQ-4 is one of the largest, most sophisticated, and most expensive drones in the U.S. arsenal.

    In a statement issued to the press, U.S. Central Command "U.S. Central Command can confirm that a U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (or BAMS-D) ISR aircraft was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile system while operating in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz at approximately 11:35 p.m. GMT on June 19, 2019.”

    “Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” it added.

    The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high altitude, long endurance (HALE) drone, designed to collect intelligence for long periods of time and with payload bays large enough to carry sophisticated sensor and data collection gear.

    Cross country flight
    A U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system prepares to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., Sept. 18, 2014, after completing a cross-country flight from California.
    U.S. Navy photo by Kelly Schindler

    Built by Northrop Grumman, the RQ-4 is 47.6 feet long with a wingspan of 130.9 feet, giving it a span wider than a Boeing 737 airliner. A single Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine, used on a variety of business jets, powers it to a top speed of 368 miles an hour. Unlike many military jets Global Hawk isn’t built for speed; the emphasis instead is on fuel efficiency, giving the unmanned airplane the ability to stay aloft for more than twenty four hours without refueling. A RQ-4 could easily fly 2,668 miles in eight hours, which is the distance from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, loiter over a target for eight hours, and then fly home.

    The RQ-4 carries a number of onboard sensors, chiefly among them electro-optical and infrared cameras for surveillance missions. Another key sensor tuned to the maritime mission is AN/ZPY-3 Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS), a 360-degree radar specifically designed to spot objects on the surface of the world’s oceans. Combined with the RQ-4’s ability to operate from commanding altitudes, this allows the RQ-4 to survey up to 2.7 million square miles in a single mission. Global Hawk also features low and high-band signal receivers designed to detect electromagnetic emissions—from radars to digital communications—track them to their source and analyze them. It is also equipped with a “due regard” radar designed to allow it to fly safely in crowded airspace without colliding with other aircraft.

    While some details are still unknown, the Global Hawk shot down by Iran was likely keeping an eye on shipping passing through the Strait of Hormuz as well as Iranian forces operating from the north end of the strait. The drone was likely based at Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE air base has hosted RQ-4 Global Hawks in the past.

    Iran claims that the drone was over Iranian airspace when the shoot down took place. While not completely implausible, that claim is unlikely because Global Hawk's long range sensors mean it could loiter in international airspace and easily use its sensors to peer into Iran.

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    Although a provocation, it’s not clear how the U.S. should and will respond to this situation. The U.S. lost several manned reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War without retaliating. In March 1969, in one such episode, a U.S. Navy EC-121M Warning Star reconnaissance aircraft, call sign “Deep Sea 129,” was shot down by North Korean fighter jets in international airspace. Thirty one U.S. military personnel were killed in the attack. The U.S. did not retaliate.

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