It's been 24 hours since the government of Iran announced that it has, allegedly, captured an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, (UAVs), or “drones” as the press is wont to call them, can be used for surveillance, relaying communications and some can be weaponized and called in for strikes.
If Iran has indeed managed to capture an intact Sentinel, would they be able to resist flaunting it on domestic television? Unlikely as this could be a fantastic propaganda coup on their end.
While it is possible Iran may have its hands on the UAV, it is worth noting that twice in the very recent past Iran has declared it has captured a U.S. owned UAV only to fail to provide any evidence to support its claims.
In January of this year, Iran's Revolutionary Guards claimed to have shot down two UAV. During this hoo hah, Iran also claimed that these UAVs violated its sovereign space. But then Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Air Force, did not succeed in presenting any evidence that this had actually occurred.
And just this past July, Iran said it had shot down a UAV near the Fordu nuclear site -- again, another claim that went unsubstantiated.
There is an awful lot of speculation and many assumptions flying regarding the most recent alleged “drone” incident of December 2011, but very little concrete information has emerged as yet. If Iran has a Sentinel, the key to any seriousness hinges upon the manner in which they would have obtained it.
ISAF, led by NATO, released the statement that a UAV was lost in western Afghanistan because “the operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.” This is quite a different version of events than claims by the Iranian media that a Sentinel had been captured with minimal damage.
If high tech military equipment is damaged in the field, it tends to be taken with the U.S. force on the ground or blown up in situ to prevent reverse engineering -- as advanced American technology is without question highly coveted.
If a Sentinel was shot down or crashed, given its capability in terms altitude and speed and taken together with its weight, the drama-rama that has taken hold regarding reverse engineering is most likely an unjustified tempest in a teacup. In the event of being shot or crashing, there would most likely be significant damage to the asset.
On the other hand, if the Sentinel does exist and is indeed intact, then there may be cause for concern as it could suggest that Iran seized control of the UAV’s operating system to land it ripe to harvest for their own unmanned aspirations.
In October of this year, it was reported that a virus had made its way into U.S. Predator and Reaper systems. This virus allegedly “keylogged” the commands of pilots as the platforms flew missions over Afghanistan and instigated some rumblings of concern to this end.
There's no doubt that Iran certainly has a desire to build its own “drones.” In August 2010, there was a whole lot of Iranian-style pomp and circumstance surrounding ‘the Reveal’ of ‘Karrar’ – purportedly the country’s first domestically built UAV, with a range of 620 miles and a payload consisting of a 500 pound precision bomb.
Convincing evidence never emerged of these claims either, but at the time it aroused some concern as the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet was based nearby in Bahrain.
This week’s drone drama is tellingly set against a backdrop of escalating tension between Iran and U.S. allies.
On November 12, Iran’s ballistic missile program was walloped with an explosion at Bidganeh, the primary missile testing facility located just outside of Tehran. Iran’s head of missile research, General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, died alongside at least seventeen others in this explosion, prompting allegations that the West was responsible for the incident.
Iran’s Isfahan uranium conversion facility then suffered a serious blow from another unexplained explosion, leading to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly proclaiming all necessary measures would be undertaken to protect Iran, and Gen Jaafari directing the Revolutionary Guard to hide the Shahab missles throughout the country.
Just this past week, on November 19, the British Embassy was attacked in Tehran. Officials suggested the attackers had the support of the regime. Twenty-five British diplomats have been expelled and France announced it would withdraw diplomatic staff from Iran as well.
This attack came on the heels of new sanctions introduced by the U.S., Canada and EU that ban financial transactions with Iran. These more aggressive measures are in response to the IAEA report (the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog) indicating that there was evidence tests had been conducted relevant to developing a nuclear device.
Iran claims its nuclear ambitions are purely those of a nation with peaceful aspirations -- just as it claims it has a U.S. UAV without brandishing any evidence.
Iran's credibility is low, but when wasn’t it?
Drone or no drone, what this drone-drama signifies is the latest in Iran’s brandishing that it is ready to rumble.
Allison Barrie is a formerballet dancer turned defense specialist whohas travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.