The facts about the downing of the U.S. Reaper drone are still emerging, and many relevant specifics are yet to become public, but as we attempt to get our bearings it is worth beginning with applied history. Applied historians ask: have we ever seen anything like this before?
Five cases that are similar in relevant respects are worth recalling: the 2019 shootdown and capture of a U.S. Global Hawk drone by Iran, the collision with a Chinese fighter that forced an EP-3 spy plane to land in Hainan in 2001, the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo (a spy ship) in 1968, and two U.S. U-2 overflights of enemy territory during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In each case, the key questions are: what happened? What did the parties say about where the aircraft was? And how did the United States respond?
In perhaps the closest parallel, in June 2019 Iran shot down a Global Hawk surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. While the United States claimed that the drone was 21 miles from Iran’s coast, Iran argued that it had violated its sovereignty earlier in the flight by coming within 8 miles of its border, well inside the 14-mile limits of its recognized territorial seas. President Donald Trump tweeted that Iran had made a “big mistake” and reportedly considered a series of strikes on Iranian radar and missile sites. Nonetheless, no strikes were conducted. Instead, the United States filed a complaint at the United Nations, imposed additional sanctions, and reportedly conducted cyber attacks.
In 2001, the first year of the administration of George W. Bush, a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane was flying a surveillance mission 70 miles off the coast of China’s Hainan Island. When it was intercepted by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fighter aircraft, the two planes collided, killing the PLA pilot and causing the EP-3 to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The crew of twenty-four was held by Chinese authorities for ten days. While both sides agreed that the U.S. aircraft was 70 miles away from Chinese territory when the collision occurred, China accused the United States of illicitly passing through its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while the United States countered that EEZs permit innocent passage. The dispute was resolved with a face-saving half-apology: the United States expressed “regret and sorrow” for the incident but issued no “letter of apology.” China responded by releasing the crew and, after disassembling the plane and extracting information about its intelligence capabilities, returned its parts in boxes several months later.
North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968 provides further perspective.Conducting surveillance activities off the coast of North Korea, a U.S. spy ship with a crew of eighty-three was fired upon and captured. Following the standard script, North Korea claimed that the Pueblo was inside its territorial waters, 8.5 miles away from Ryo Island, while the United States countered that it was “miles away” from approaching the accepted 14-mile territorial line. After eleven months of negotiations, the United States apologized, gave North Korea a written admission that the ship had been spying, and made a commitment not to spy in the future in exchange for the crew’s return. North Korea kept the Pueblo, and today it remains a trophy in Pyongyang.
Finally, on the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, two U.S. U-2 aircraft flew over enemy territory, the first over the Soviet Union on what could have appeared to be a last-minute targeting update before a nuclear first strike, the second over Cuba where the Soviet Union was rushing to complete construction of nuclear-tipped missile launchers. When informed of the first plane, in a moment of gallows humor, President John F. Kennedy famously said: “there’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.” While both Soviet and U.S. fighter jets scrambled, no shots were fired, and the plane returned safely to base. The second U-2 was shot down by Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) air defenses in Cuba, killing its pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson. Despite the loss of life and the fact that he had previously approved plans for retaliatory airstrikes against any Soviet SAM sites that fired on U.S. aircraft, Kennedy held back in favor of a brilliant last-ditch gambit that brought the crisis to a successful conclusion.
Against this historical canvas, over the next several days we should expect the two parties to present competing stories about what happened and where. As the United States began to do yesterday in releasing a video of the encounter, each will do its best to make its narrative persuasive to the audience it cares about most, namely, its own citizens. Predictably, Republican critics of President Joe Biden will charge that Vladimir Putin was emboldened to act so provocatively by Biden’s weakness and argue that this would never have happened if Trump were president—without recalling that Trump was president in 2019 when the Iranians did essentially the same thing. The Biden administration will condemn Russia’s action, but not retaliate militarily. And soon the next bright shiny object will appear consigning this shootdown to the dustbin of history.
Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?