U.S. Navy Drones Could Keep Watch on Iran From Across the Persian Gulf
The Pentagon seeks to build Triton hangars in the United Arab Emirates
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Speed boats belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps zipped dangerously around a U.S. patrol boat in the Persian Gulf. This latest incident occurred during a significant uptick in confrontations between the two navies as Iran heads toward a presidential election next year.
Separately the month before, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers formally announced it was looking for a contractor to build new facilities for U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton drones at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon had first put out feelers for the construction project in July.
The plan calls for hangar space to house a total of four drones, plus equipment to control the aircraft and new taxiways to link the site to the base’s existing runways, according to the posting on FedBizOpps, the government’s main contracting website.
The U.S. Air Force will construct this infrastructure in an area already used to park tanker aircraft.
Helpfully, the draft contract document includes imagery and photos of the proposed site. With the additions, the Navy’s bulbous drones could snoop on Iran and others in the region from the strategically important base.
The particular drone the Navy wants for the site has an interesting history.
In 2004, the Navy first began looking for an unmanned aircraft that could keep an eye out across vast oceans areas for long periods at high altitudes. The sailing branch envisioned the drone working with manned patrol planes such as the P-8 Poseidon.
Four years later, Northrop Grumman won a contract to build the new pilotless surveillance plane. Derived from the Virginia defense giant’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, the Triton takes many features from this earlier model.
The MQ-4 can fly 8,200 miles without needing to refuel at altitudes up to 60,000 feet. With a maximum speed of nearly 360 miles per hour, the drones can spend up to 30 hours in the air on every mission.
The Tritons have powerful cameras and radars to find and track ships at sea — and potentially targets on land.
In keeping with their naval role, the drones have a radio receiver to pick up transmissions from commercial ships’ Automatic Identification Systems. This equipment is like a transponder in a plane and regularly transmits the same kind of identifying information, such as a vessel’s name and registration.
Al Dhafra, home to American aircraft since the 1990s, is a logical home for the Triton, which has a longer wingspan than a Boeing 737. Unlike smaller Predators and Reapers, MQ-4s need longer runways — like at Al Dhafra — to take off and land.
The base is not unaccustomed to drones. In 2010, the Air Force likely sent some of its stealthy RQ-170s to Al Dhafra to snoop on Iran.
On top of that, the base is a mere 600 miles from Kuwait on the other side of the Persian Gulf. This means the Tritons could easily fly for hours at a time snooping on ship movements and other activities in the area.
The United States and Iran have a long history of skirmishes. And since 2007, the two countries’ navies have challenged each other numerous times. During the lead-up to Iran’s 2013 presidential election, Tehran threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz.
Doing so would have strangled commercial shipping and sparked a major international incident. After the threats, the Navy briefly sent two aircraft carriers and other assorted warships into the Gulf as a major show of force.
“Iran’s primary strategic goal … is to protect its interests in the Gulf (as well as the Levant and farther west in Central and South Asia) by limiting encroachments in what it considers its sphere of influence in the Gulf,” Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a May report. “At the same time, it admits just enough space for engagement to guarantee commercial transit through the Strait of Hormuz and mutual economic benefits.”
With the MQ-4s in the region, the Navy has even more ways to spot potential threats before they reach American ships. The Air Force already regularly sends spy planes and spy ships to the area to keep tabs on Tehran.
“The United States’ Arab partners in the Gulf deeply distrust Iran and its motivations in the region,” Dalton added. “The Islamic Republic [of Iran] … is skeptical of U.S. proposals, believing that even the most benign confidence-building measures are further encroachments on its ability to control the Gulf.”
So, the Pentagon is unlikely to say the Tritons are officially in the region to spy on Iranian forces. However, if the drones do deploy to the UAE in the future, their presence will not go unnoticed in Tehran.
And from the Al Dhafra, the pilotless planes have the range to fly out into the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. This puts them within range of conflicts in Somalia and Yemen.
The U.S. Navy regularly scours the Gulf of Aden for pirates and other criminal activity, but the ships can’t be everywhere at once. To help protect commercial shipping, the sailing branch in 2008 dispatched early “demonstrator” prototypes of the naval drone to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
The drones were part of a major international response that effectively crippled piracy in the region. In 2013, pirates hijacked zero ships, according to data from the Office of Naval Intelligence. Two years later, there were no indents of any kind whatsoever. As of August, 2016 looks like it could be another piracy-free year in the Gulf of Aden.
But this isn’t to suggest the waterways have become less important. In March and April, the Navy and its allies stopped three ships carrying weapons off the coast of Yemen.
According to the Pentagon, the shipments originated in Iran and were headed for Houthi rebels. Long opposed to the country’s ruling regimes, the Shia sect chased president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi from Yemen’s capital in January 2015.
A Saudi-led coalition — which included the UAE — embarked on a military campaign to try and restore Hadi to power. Though the actual links are unclear, both Washington and Riyadh see the Houthis as a proxy of Tehran.
Regardless, from the Tritons’ base farther north, the drones could prowl for small ships heading for the Yemeni coast and direct nearby American ships to their locations.
With the drones high in the sky, Iran might have more difficulty sending weapons and other gear.
Still in developmental testing, the Navy expects to to have the first MQ-4s ready for actual missions sometime in 2018. If everything goes to plan, there could already be hangers in the UAE waiting for them by then.