By Lucas Tomlinson, Edmund DeMarche, Travis Fedschun
Published June 20, 2019
U.S. military officials returned fire -- verbally -- hours after Iran blasted a Navy high-altitude drone out of the sky over the Strait of Hormuz, with U.S. Central Command leaders on Thursday slamming the "unprovoked" strike and Tehran's subsequent "false" justifications for it.
The downing of the drone, via surface-to-air missile, is only the most recent Iranian provocation in the region, coming on the heels of a disputed attack on a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. U.S. officials say Iran was behind the tanker attacks, however, the Islamic Republic has not claimed responsibility and even suggested American involvement in the plot.
Similarly, Iran claimed the U.S. drone on Thursday was over Iranian airspace when it was shot down -- but American officials stated unequivocally the incident occurred in international airspace. U.S. Central Command said in a statement that a U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance ISR aircraft, known as a BAMS-D, was shot down at approximately 7:35 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
In a statement read to reporters at the Pentagon Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command said the drone was flying over the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz on a surveillance mission in international airspace when it was shot down from the missile fired from a location near Goruk, Iran.
"This was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset that had not violated Iranian airspace at any time during its mission," Guastella said. "This attack is an attempt to disrupt our ability to monitor the area following recent threats to international shipping and free flow of commerce."
Guastella said at the time it was struck by the missile, the drone was operating at a "high-altitude" approximately 34 kilometers from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast.
"This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, UAE, and Muscat Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians," he said.
The U.S. Navy’s RQ-4A Global Hawk drone provides real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions "over vast ocean and coastal regions," according to the military.
Iran also tried to shoot down another drone, but missed, U.S. officials told Fox News. Officials are now scrambling to find the wreckage in the water before Iranian forces recover it.
The Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone deployed to the Middle East in the past few days as part of reinforcements approved by President Trump last month.
The high-altitude drone can fly up to 60,000 feet or 11 miles in altitude and loiter for 30 hours at a time. It's used to spy on Iranian military communications and track shipping in the busy waterways. Each drone costs up to $180 million dollars.
Besides the drone incident, U.S. officials told Fox News that Iranian-backed forces fired cruise missiles Wednesday night into Saudi Arabia, hitting a power plant. The spate of recent attacks come amid the backdrop of heightened tensions after the U.S. decision a year ago to withdraw from Tehran's nuclear deal reimpose sanctions.
At the same time, he seemed to leave open the possibility that it was not an intentional act.
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, and it could have been someone who was loose and stupid,” he said.
A commander for Iran's Revolutionary Guard claimed the drone was shot down over Iranian airspace to send a "clear message" to the U.S., and marked the first direct Iranian-claimed attack of the crisis.
"We do not have any intention for war with any country, but we are fully ready for war," Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Hossein Salami said in a televised address.
Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it shot down the drone on Thursday morning -- causing some confusion about the timeline of the incident -- when it entered Iranian airspace near the Kouhmobarak district in southern Iran's Hormozgan province. Kouhmobarak is some 750 miles southeast of Tehran and close to the Strait of Hormuz.
The Guard said it shot down the drone at 4:05 a.m. after it collected data from Iranian territory, including the southern port of Chahbahar near Iran's border with Pakistan. Iran used its air defense system known as Third of Khordad to shoot down the drone — a truck-based missile system that can fire up to 18 miles into the sky, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
The Guard described the drone as being launched from the southern Persian Gulf but did not elaborate. American RQ-4A Global Hawks are stationed at the Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, near the capital, Abu Dhabi.
Salami, speaking to a crowd in the western city of Sanandaj, described the American drone as "violating our national security border."
"Borders are our red line," Salami said. "Any enemy that violates the borders will be annihilated."
The U.S. said Iran fired a missile at another drone last week that responded to the attack on two oil tankers near the Gulf.
Another senior U.S. official told Fox News last week that an MQ9 Reaper drone was fired on by the Iranians shortly after it arrived at the scene where the MV Altair tanker sent out a distress signal.
After the tanker incident, Pompeo said his assessment was based on "intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”
Fox News' Jennifer Griffin, Adam Shaw, Lukas Mikelionis and The Associated Press contributed to this report