Published March 28, 2012
The unmanned “Shaparak” -- Persian for “butterfly” -- can fly 3 1/2 hours nonstop, carry a 17-pound payload and achieve an altitude of 15,000 feet, according to the announcement made last week.
The aircraft’s unveiling raises new questions about Iran’s military technology capability, particularly in light of the nation’s capture of an American drone last December.
“I’m unimpressed,” said Peter W. Singer, author of the book "Wired for War" and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute. “They make one of these types of announcements every few months. It changes nothing.”
Iran’s capture of an unmanned RQ-170 Sentinel -- the same device used to collect intelligence in Pakistan ahead of the raid that killed Usama Bin Laden -- was a significant intelligence blow for the United States.
It not only exposed an aggressive, top-secret CIA surveillance mission aimed at mapping Iranian nuclear and missile sites; it also delivered the latest in cutting-edge drone technology to the Iranians.
Iran’s government promptly showcased the Lockheed Martin unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on national television with banners conveying anti-American slogans and a mock American flag bearing skulls instead of stars.
Iranian officials said they brought down the drone through an electronic attack on its navigation system, but the U.S. maintained it crashed due to a malfunction.
Either way, experts believe American vulnerability has less to do with the crash -- drones fail at higher rates than manned aircraft for a number of reasons, including human error, incorrect information, network interference, system failure, weather and being shot down -- and more to do with the fear of what the Iranians will do next.
China and Russia asked to inspect the drone only three days after its capture, according to the Nasim online news site, and officials say it could provide sensitive information about UAV flight controls, communications equipment, video surveillance, self-destruct holding patterns and return-to-base abilities.
While the U.S. military budget is shrinking with economic cuts and the drawdown of two active wars, allocation of funds for UAVs has grown exponentially to $6.2 billion in 2012, according to the Defense Department.
Iran has made several statements about its own ongoing UAV development program in the past few years.
In 2009, it successfully tested a homemade radar-evading UAV with bombing capabilities.
In August 2010, in a ceremony marking Defense Industry Day, it unveiled its first domestically manufactured UAV, named “Karrar,” and announced the development of two other domestically built UAVs with bombing and reconnaissance capabilities.
In February 2011, Iran announced the production of two homemade UAVs with bombing and reconnaissance capabilities.
Iran’s latest drone is powered by a two-cylinder engine and is equipped with three digital color cameras that can transmit high-resolution footage to the ground, Reza Danandeh Hakamabad, the aeronautics engineer in charge of the project, told Fars News.
It can perform a wide variety of functions, including military missions, border patrol, forest and road traffic monitoring, search and rescue, pipeline monitoring and transport.
There’s a “bit of arrogance,” Singer said, in believing the only way other nations will get this technology is to copy our version. Currently, there are 45 nations building and buying robotic weaponry, he said.
“In history it goes in both directions,” he said. “There have been times when we’re the copiers. This is part and parcel as to what happens when you have competition in military manufacturing.”
The larger implication to this development, he said, is the hypothetical pass-off scenario. What would deter Iran, or another rogue nation, from sharing its technology -- possibly enhanced with nuclear material -- with a proxy entity such as Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, or the Syrian government?
“This isn’t a first-time issue or a futuristic scenario,” Singer said, regarding weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups. Referring to Hezbollah’s use of drones in 2006 against Israel, he added, “It’s been happening historically.”