Thursday, February 19, 2009

Iran has developed a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles with a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi announced this week, calling it an “important achievement.” The new UAV could range as far east as India, west to the Mediterranean, south over the Arabian peninsula and north over much of central Asia and the Caucasus. In other words, it could soar over every U.S. military installation, diplomatic mission or country of interest in the Middle East.

The United States long enjoyed a near-monopoly on sophisticated weapons such as UAVs, but over the past decade dozens of nations have either fielded or begun developing their own drone aircraft for surveillance, reconnaissance or attack missions. Drones are very attractive to smaller states because they are inexpensive, stealthy and pose fewer risks than conventional aircraft. If a drone is shot down or malfunctions on a mission there is no pilot to rescue, and the loss is in the thousands of dollars instead of the millions.

Iran began developing UAVs in the early 1990s and has reportedly used them to shadow U.S. fleet movements in the Gulf and to monitor events in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007 Iran claimed to have begun producing “suicide drones” invisible to radar and usable as guided missiles to attack U.S. ships. Given the effectiveness of Japanese kamikaze tactics in World War II, the prospect of massed Iranian drone attacks on our fleet should be cause for some concern. Of greater immediate worry is the possibility that Iran might begin to use drones for the same kind of pinpoint attacks the United States is currently carrying out in the war on terrorism. Random explosions on U.S. bases or against American businesses or diplomatic missions in the region might be blamed on terrorists, while Iran maintains plausible deniability.

Furthermore, Iran is more than willing to place these weapons directly in terrorist hands. Hezbollah has penetrated Israeli air defenses using Iranian-supplied drones, and claimed to have attacked an Israeli warship. Should Iran arm its drones with missiles having chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear warheads, any of which are or soon will be within Iranian capabilities, the UAVs will be strategic, offensive weapon systems. These were the kinds of scenarios that led the United Nations to limit Saddam Hussein’s drone fleet to a range of 150 kilometers - something to consider as we seek engagement with Tehran.

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