In June 2019 at least five of twelve U.S. F-15E fighter-bombers were seen arriving at a UAE (United Arab Emirates) airbase carrying an ASQ-236 AESA surveillance/targeting pod. This was a few days before an Iranian SAM (surface to air missile) shot down an unarmed American Triton maritime surveillance UAV in the Persian Gulf, off the nearby Iranian coast. The lost Triton was based on the 14 ton RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV which pioneered the use of similar AESA radars. For the Iranians this was an unfortunate coincidence.
The ASQ-236 AESA pod have been around for about twenty years and for the last ten has been in service. Not a lot of ASQ-236 pods have been built but many F-15Es have been equipped to use it and the pod has been tested on the B-52, AC-130 gunship, F-16 and F-35A. While the F-35A already has an AESA radar (and the F-15E will soon be getting them) the ASQ-236 is special because, like the AESA radar used on the RQ-4, it is a high-definition side looking model and can be off the coast and detect activity on the ground deep inside Iran, or at sea.
Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars have superior target tracking, scanning and high-resolution image capture abilities. This makes them excellent for use over land or water because AESA can capture near-photo quality images of what is down there. When equipped for target identification and location capabilities, as the ASQ-236 is, the F-15E can scan the coast it passes over and if it spots a target, instantly record its GPS location. The aircraft can then drop a GPS guided smart bomb. The RQ-4 carries an even more powerful side-scanning AESA radar but is unarmed. With the F-15E carrying the 454 kg (thousand pound) ASQ-236 pod, Iranian SAM launchers or small gunboats along the coast could be spotted and attacked. Hitting a moving target is no problem because the F-15E carries the 128 kg SDB (small diameter bomb). The latest version of SDB (Stormbreaker) is equipped with three targeting sensors and designed to go after moving targets, like Iranian gunboats. The ASQ-236 AESA radar also has some jamming capability as well as the ability to fry electronics.
The Triton UAV that was shot down was flying over international waters, as is normal, and at high altitude, so they could scan deep into Iran for whatever visual, radar and electronic data they could obtain. Iran insisted, without any evidence, that the Triton was over Iranian territory. This downing of an expensive (over $120 million) American UAV was meant to be provocative and, for the domestic Iranian audience, evidence that all the Iranian air defenses can get the job done. That is often not the case as there was recently an incident where an F-35 was seen (visually) over Iranian cities taking pictures but Iranian radars were unable to detect it. The commander of the Iranian air defense forces lost his job over that and the incident was not given a lot of publicity inside Iran.
The UAE has been hosting American warplanes and warships for over twenty years. RQ-4s have been operating from the UAE airbase since this large UAV became operational in the late 1990s. The UAE has been hosting F-15Es even longer. American and other Western warplanes operate from ten other airbases in the Persian Gulf, mainly to keep an eye on Iran and aid the Arab Gulf nations against Iranian aggression.
The ASQ-236 is one of several reconnaissance pods used by American warplanes. Unlike most recon pods, which just take high-resolution images of what is below, the ASQ-236 can also be used in real-time to identify targets that can be attacked with guided missiles or smart bombs from any land, air or sea-based launcher within range. This capability has not been used much but that may change if Iran keeps shooting at aircraft off their coast, and outside Iranian air space.