PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION, Md.—The U.S. Navy RQ-4A surveillance drone shot down on Thursday was "just days away from retirement," according to several people with knowledge of the matter.
The move comes as tensions between Iran and the United States, which have had strained relations for decades, escalated. Iran reportedly attempted to shoot down another U.S. drone last month, and claimed the surveillance drone shot down this week had entered Iranian airspace. The U.S. insists the drone was in international skies.
Sources close to the Global Hawk drone, who went by the call sign "Black Sparrow," said it was nearing the end of a successful, 20-year Air Force career and hoped to retire to Texas in the coming months.
"Sparrow was on his last mission before heading home and retiring," said one of the drone's colleagues, an MQ-8 Fire Scout. The Reaper's SAR/MTI synthetic aperture radar pod gently quivered as he spoke. "The poor guy had two little sUAS drones back home he was looking forward to spending more time with. He'll never get to fly around with them again."
Navy officials confirmed that "Black Sparrow" was on his 18th overseas deployment, including tours in Iraq and South Korea. After 20 years in service, he would have been eligible for a full military pension as of 23 June, just three days after he was shot down.
"I've seen a lot of terrible things at war," said the drone's squadron commander, Cdr. Rick "Rock" Brett. "I've blown up, you know, whole families with killer robots. But this is by far the most tragic thing I have seen. The idea of Sparrow not getting to enjoy his pension really makes me view my own career in a different light."
"Drones are people, too."
Several other drones said the strike has had a significant impact on morale of U.S. robots flying near Iran.
"The President literally said that he didn't care that a drone got shot down because there were no humans on board," one drone told Duffel Blog, speaking on condition of anonymity so he could operate in restricted airspace in the National Capital Region undetected. "You can't fucking tell me that we should be okay with that. This drone, on his last fucking time out, get's shot down, and we just sit here."
The drone's AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, slung under its wings, began flashing red as the drone spoke.