The loss of one of America's most sophisticated drone aircraft over Iran is the latest episode in the simmering cold war with Tehran. That the drone was able to be brought down intact raises troubling questions about the vulnerability of the rest of the U.S. drone fleet.
The RQ-170 Sentinel drone is one of the most sophisticated such platforms in the world. The aircraft is used by the CIA for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and reportedly was used to collect information to support the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The drone brought down in Iran was operating around 140 miles inside the country and could be assumed to have been collecting information on Tehran's nuclear program, though officials haven't commented on the mission.
Tehran says the drone was taken by means of a cyber-attack, a claim U.S. authorities dispute, but there is some reason to believe it is true. The drone was captured intact, and given its fragile bat-winged design, it wouldn't have survived a crash landing. The drone's alleged automatic landing system, if it exists, is an odd and potentially self-defeating feature for an aircraft designed to execute top-secret missions over hostile territory. If Iranians were able to engage this system, it demonstrates that they are far more advanced in anti-drone measures than previously believed.
Tehran claims to be exploiting data from the drone, which is questionable because the computer systems likely are encrypted. However, it's reasonable to assume the advanced avionics on board the drone would have been rigged for destruction in situations where the aircraft was out of control and liable to be captured. If the Iranians were able to take control of the drone and land it with all of its critical systems intact, it represents an even greater American failure.
On Monday, President Obama said the United States wanted the drone returned. "We have asked for it back," he said hopefully. "We'll see how the Iranians respond." The response was almost immediate. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, said, "No one returns the symbol of aggression to the party that sought secret and vital intelligence related to the national security of a country." Indeed, the remains of the U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers, which was brought down in May 1960, are still on display at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow.
Iran will keep the drone at the very least to attempt to reverse-engineer it. "Iran is among the few countries that possesses the most modern technology in the field of pilotless drones," Gen. Salami boasted. "The technology gap between Iran and the U.S. is not much." Whether this is true since the August 2010 assassination of Reza Baruni, head of Iran's drone program, remains to be seen. Russian and Chinese engineers no doubt also will want to examine the Sentinel to boost their own drone programs.
Whatever the outcome of this embarrassing episode, it was an unexpected win for a regime that is increasingly living on borrowed time. It also is a message to the United States that national security cannot simply be left on autopilot.
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