According to Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Iran’s air defense force, Iran has intercepted or otherwise engaged an American U-2 spy plane and a reconnaissance drone within the past six months, forcing each to change course.
The general told reporters on Sunday that Iran’s air force intercepted an unmanned American RQ-4 drone last week, forcing it to divert out of Iranian air space. He went on to claim that they had done the same in March with an American U-2 spy plane.
When the warning was given to the pilot of this (U-2) plane at the Strait of Hormuz, he knew that he was being targeted by two separate radars … and missile systems,” Esmaili said. “Iran will never allow such hostile planes to approach its airspace and would not hesitate to bring them down if necessary,” he went on.
If the plane was intercepted over the Strait of Hormuz, which has also been the site of a number of aggressive interactions between the U.S. Navy and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, it is possible that it was flying over international air space at the time. The Strait of Hormuz is a tactically important narrow that allows access to the Persian Gulf; a narrow Iran patrols with fast attack boats that often behave in openly aggressive ways.
The U.S. Defense Department has yet to make a statement regarding Iran’s claims, but it seems entirely likely that American assets have been employed in the region to maintain a watchful eye on developments in and around the Strait of Hormuz. However, the general’s bluster regarding the threat to the U-2 spy plane’s pilot was likely an overstatement. Aside from Iran’s recent acquisition of Russian made S-300 surface to air missile platforms, little in Iran’s armament could come close to engaging a U-2 at its operational ceiling of higher than 70,000 feet, and in fact, even the advanced S-300 wouldn’t be a sure thing.
Although the U-2 is an aged platform, having first taken to the air in 1955, its high altitude operational capability continues to prove valuable for reconnaissance missions for just that reason. It’s downright difficult to shoot something out of the sky at that height. Of course, that isn’t to say it’s impossible. CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 by a Soviet surface to air missile in May of 1960, meaning Russian tech is clearly capable of intercepting these high-flying planes today, despite updates to the U-2 platform.
Earlier this month, an Iranian QOM-1 drone interrupted flight operations aboard the American aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Strait of Hormuz, when it flew to within 100 feet of a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet as it made its landing approach. The fighter was forced to break off its approach, and the U.S. government levied a formal complaint with Iran over the “unsafe and unprofessional altitude changes in the close vicinity” of the American jet.
A number of ship to ship interactions over the past year have also heightened tensions with Tehran, including two incidents that resulted in American ships firing warning shots at rapidly approaching Iranian fast attack boats. As of last month, the U.S. Navy had characterized a whopping 13 interactions between Iranian and U.S. watercraft as “unsafe and/or unprofessional.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force