Iranian aircraft fired on an unarmed U.S. Predator drone that was conducting routine surveillance in international waters, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The drone wasn’t hit and returned safely to its base, Little said. The drone was 16 nautical miles from the Iranian coast at the time of the incident on Nov. 1, he said.
“We believe this is the first time an unmanned aircraft has been shot at over international waters in the Arabian Gulf,” Little told reporters today in a Pentagon briefing.
International tensions over the waterway, also known as the Persian Gulf, have increased as the U.S. and allies have tightened economic sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to abandon elements of its nuclear program that could be used to develop an atomic bomb. Iranian officials have periodically threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, which leads into the gulf and through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil transits daily.
The Pentagon didn’t announce the attack on the drone when it occurred because “we routinely do not advertise our classified surveillance missions,” Little said at a news conference.
Little said the Pentagon considered media reports of the attack to be “an unauthorized disclosure of classified information” and that he was commenting only because it had already been disclosed.
The Pentagon has declined to comment on a drone that crashed in Iran in December. Iranian officials showed off video of the pilotless plane at the time.
In the latest incident, the unmanned MQ-1 Predator aircraft, made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, California, was flying off the Iranian coast in international airspace when it was attacked at 4:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight time, Little said.
While the spokesman initially described an Iranian “aircraft” attack, he said in a later e-mail that two Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack planes were involved in the incident.
“Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down,” he said at the press conference. “You’ll have to ask the Iranians why they engaged in this action.”
The drone was fired on “at least twice” and was pursued “for several miles,” Little said. The drone returned to its base in the region without damage, he said.
He declined to name the base or identify what government agency operated the drone. Both the military and the Central Intelligence Agency use Predators.
The Predator has a cruise speed of 84 to 135 miles per hour (135 to 217 kilometers per hour) and a wingspan of 55 feet (16.8 meters), according to an Air Force factsheet.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “was advised very early in the morning of the incident,” Little said. “The White House was informed very quickly as well.”
The U.S., through Swiss intermediaries, expressed its “very strong concerns” to Iran about the attack, Little said.
“We have communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters over the Arabian Gulf consistent with long-standing practice,” he said.