An unarmed U.S. military Predator surveillance drone was fired at by Iranian military jets last week in international airspace over the waters of the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon disclosed on Thursday.
ABC News reported that officials stressed that the U.S. drone had never entered Iranian territory and that the entire incident occurred in international airspace.
The drone was not hit by the plane’s gunfire and was able to return to its undisclosed base in the region, the report said.
At a Pentagon briefing, spokesman George Little told reporters that the incident had occurred last Thursday at approximately 4:50 a.m. Eastern Time when an unarmed Predator drone “conducting routine surveillance” over the Gulf “was intercepted by Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot aircraft and was fired upon with guns.”
The incident occurred 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coastline, Little said. The internationally recognized territorial limit of waters and airspace begins 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline. Though Little did not disclose where the incident occurred, a defense official told ABC News that it occurred in the northern part of the Persian Gulf east of Kuwait.
The White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were informed of the incident as quickly as it happened, as were relevant members of Congress, reported ABC News. The incident was not disclosed until Thursday when CNN was first to reveal the details of the incident.
Little said that the Pentagon does not talk about classified missions like the one the Predator was undertaking, but decided to go public with details following “the unauthorized leak.”
Little said that the United States communicated to Iran via Swiss intermediaries that “we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters over the Arabian Gulf consistent with long-standing practice.”
He described last Thursday’s incident as the first time that an unmanned American aircraft has been shot at over the international waters of the Persian Gulf.
When asked if the United States considered the shooting an “act of war”, Little said he was “not going to get into legal labels.”
He added, “The reality is that we have a wide range of options, as I said before, to protect our assets and our forces in the region and will do so when necessary.” He later acknowledged that no manned American aircraft had responded to the incident.
Last December, Iran boasted that its military forces had shot down a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 stealth UAV.
The U.S. later admitted that one of its drones is in Iranian possession but did not say that the Iranians shot down the spy plane. Iran then presented video footage of the U.S. drone it shot down.