The Washington Post:

By Michael C. Horowitz , Sarah E. Kreps and Matthew Fuhrman

Thursday, Iran shot down an important U.S. aerial surveillance asset, an RQ-4 Global Hawk, widely known as a drone, reportedly in international waters. Many observers that, given the background, this could push the two nations toward war.

Here’s what you need to know about drones and military escalation as the possibility of a confrontation looms.

*It’s easy to shoot down most current generation drones *

Current generation drones generally fly slowly and can’t defend themselves, making them vulnerable to enemy air defenses. Countries have not shied away from exploiting this vulnerability, as drone shoot-downs have become somewhat commonplace. For example, Indian forces have repeatedly fired at Pakistani drones, and Turkey shot down a Russian drone in the midst of the Syria conflict. Iran’s latest action is not unprecedented.

*Drone shoot-downs usually don’t lead to military escalation*

While shooting down drones does generate publicity, it has not led to escalation. As we discussed in an article in International Security, one of the reasons countries use drones is to deploy military assets while reducing the risk to their own soldiers and limiting the prospects of escalation. Shooting down a drone does not generate the same level of public outrage as shooting down a pilot, so it generally does not galvanize the domestic case for war.

In fact, the use of drones has caused the opposite concern, that this so-called light footprint approach to war disconnects the public from costs of conflict and creates public apathy rather than accountability.

Thus shooting down a drone, even when the countries involved are the United States and Iran, is unlikely to be a cause for war, though it certainly could raise tensions. This does not change the fundamentals that one of us, Michael Horowitz, and Elizabeth Saunders laid out here at TMC earlier in the week.

Is the Iran context different?

From a military perspective, shooting down an RQ-4 has some significance. It’s a much more expensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance asset than the more commonly known MQ-9 Reaper drone. Thus, Iran’s action is certainly costly to the U.S. military — but a lot less costly than if it had shot down an equivalent aircraft with U.S. military personnel aboard.

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