The British newspaper Express has cited unnamed sources as saying that the US-made sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ScanEagle was “quietly” taken out of service by the UK Royal Navy a year and a half ago and that the drone has not been replaced.
This may prompt Iran to increase the use of its own UAVs in order to spy on HMS Montrose in the Persian Gulf, where the Royal Navy will be unable to respond in kind, according to the sources.
Apart from the Montrose, the UK Navy dispatched its two other warships, HMS Kent and HMS Duncan, to the Gulf as it earlier officially signed up for the US-proposed maritime coalition against a purported Iranian threat.
The sources also claimed that Royal Air Force (RAF)’s alternative drones, including Reaper, are also not being deployed due to concerns that these UAVs may meet the same fate as the US Global Hawk, which was downed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in June.
One source described Reapers as “different beasts to the ScanEagle, which was designed for surveillance purposes only,” adding that the “difference is reflected in their [Reapers] price tag” which stands at $14.7 million.
“They also fly at lower altitudes. The feeling right now is that deploying them in the Gulf is not worth the candle because of the risks involved in contested airspace,” the source added.
The sources said that the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed a decision to abandon the ScanEagles in 2017 after the MoD faced increasing defence cuts in 2016.
The systems were sent back to Boeing last year, “leaving the Royal Navy with no spy in the sky capability and no immediate replacement in sight,” the Express quoted the sources as saying.
Earlier, the UK’s Type 23 frigate Richmond used ScanEagles to track drug smugglers off the African coast after the MoD leased two such drones worth $12 million each for an initial four years, a lease that has never been extended.
Iran Defies US Plans to Create Gulf Coalition
In July, Washington suggested establishing an international maritime coalition to patrol the Gulf and “ensure freedom of navigation” in the region. Thus far, only the UK and Australia have joined the US-led mission which was suggested after the UK-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero was seized by the IRGC in the Gulf earlier that month.
The US move to build a maritime coalition to patrol the key sea route across the Strait of Hormuz prompted outrage in Tehran, which predicted that it will result in more instability in the region.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif insisted that “any extra-regional presence is by definition a source of insecurity” in the area and that Iran “won't hesitate to safeguard its security,” a statement that was preceded by Tehran stating that it can maintain security in the Gulf all by itself.