Over this past weekend, Iran reportedly threatened two U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft operating in international waters. The P-8A Poseidon and the EP-3E Aries II operating in the Persian Gulf received the threatening radio messages but proceeded with their mission.
Iran could very well have the means to shoot down U.S. spy planes. Iran has the SA-10 "Grumble" (also known as the S-300) missile system from Russia and also has developed a home-brew version of the air defense missile called the Bavar 373. Iran has a number of other surface-to-air missiles in service as well as fighters like the MiG-29 and F-4 Phantom.
A P-8A Poseidon assigned to the Bureau of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20 replicates the characteristics of an MK-54 torpedo. (U.S. Navy photo by Greg L. Davis/Released)
The P-8A Poseidon is a modified version of Boeing's 737 airliner, slated to replace the legendary P-3 Orion. The P-8 can carry torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, and even AIM-9 Sidewinders for self-defense, and it has a range of 4,500 nautical miles. The plane has been ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force, the Indian Air Force, and the Royal Air Force.
The EP-3E Aries II is a modified version of the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft that specializes in electronic intelligence, or ELINT. The plane has a range of 3,000 miles. This was the aircraft that was involved in a 2001 incident off Hainan Island that killed the pilot of a Chinese J-8 Finback after a mid-air collision.
The threats come after a series of incidents between Iranian and American naval vessels. Notable incidents included harassment of the Aegis destroyer USS Nitze (DDG 94) and an incident where the Cyclone-class patrol craft USS Squall (PC 7) fired warning shots at Iranian Boghammers. American surveillance aircraft have also faced harassment from Russian and Chinese forces in recent years, including incidents where aircraft have come within ten feet of P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and RC-135 surveillance planes.
In 1988, tensions between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf region led to a series of clashes, including Operation Praying Mantis in April after the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) was mined. During a day of heated clashes, American forces sank a frigate and missile boat and destroyed or damaged other Iranian maritime assets, in exchange for one AH-1 Cobra helicopter. Later that year, an Airbus was shot down during a clash between the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Vincennes and Iranian Boghammers.
The current state of tensions between Iran and the United States raises the specter of another round of clashes. How would an Operation Praying Mantis II go down? It could very well start with a shoot-out between Revolutionary Guard speedboats and a U.S. Navy vessel. After that, we could very well see a sharp series of naval and air clashes, combined with cruise missile strikes on Iranian bases.
If Iran were to launch missiles at Israel in the event of a conflict breaking out (Saddam Hussein tried that gambit in 1991), the entire Middle East could be on the precipice of a conflagration.