The Iranian government declared on Dec. 4 that it had downed a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone over the eastern part of the country. U.S. officials quickly disputed the claim but acknowledged that one of their drones had been flying over “western Afghanistan” – that would be immediately adjacent to eastern Iran — late last week when it disappeared. The Iranian Fars news agency, which is linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, added that the drone had been downed with help from the Iranian military’s “electronic warfare unit,” al-Jazeera reported.
The purported incident comes as the U.S. and much of the rest of the world continue to rattle their sabers over Tehran’s nuclear-development efforts. Iran maintains that its efforts are for the peaceful use of nuclear power, but the West believes Iran is in a final sprint toward a Persian nuke. “Iran’s army has downed an intruding RQ-170 American drone in eastern Iran,” Iran’s Arabic-language al-Alam state television network quoted an unnamed source as saying. “The spy drone, which has been downed with little damage, was seized by the armed forces.”
The U.S. didn’t deny that one of its drones was MIA. “The UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week,” the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. “The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”
All this got folks pretty spun up. But there are a couple of key points that need to be made. Iran has said on more than one occasion that it has shot down a U.S. drone, and has even pledged to put it on display. Yet after an initial flurry of press coverage, Iran never seems to produce the drone carcass that would prove its claim.
Secondly, all U.S. drones flying today are pretty easy to shoot down. That’s why they’re great over Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. maintains air superiority. But put them in contested airspace — like Iran’s, for example — and they’re basically sitting ducks. “Current technology in unmanned systems limits their application to relatively permissive operating environments,” the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recently noted. “Unmanned aircraft remain critically dependent on communication links for command and control and thus are vulnerable to jamming.”
The Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel — affectionately dubbed the Beast of Kandahar for the mysterious missions it has been flying off and on for years out of that Afghan base — is a high-altitude surveillance aircraft. The flying wing design — with a wingspan of about 70 ft. (21 m) – is believed to be somewhat stealthy, to make it more difficult to detect with radar. RQ-170s flew multiple missions over Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the months before Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in May, killing him. One of the drones provided live video coverage of the strike to Washington, where top officials monitored the operation.
The betting among some U.S. military officials is that Iran may have indeed gotten ahold of the Pentagon’s missing drone. But the apparent lag time between its loss and Iran’s declaration that it succeeded in shooting it down suggests that Iran stumbled upon it on the ground — perhaps even on Iranian soil.
If that is what happened, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that Tehran might be able to glean some technology from whatever chunks of the drone remain intact. The good news is that they didn’t get the drone’s pilot, who was safely on the ground many miles away.