Iran claims to have shot down one of the U.S. Air Force’s most secretive aerial drones. The alleged shoot-down, if true, has serious implications for regional security and for the Air Force’s growing arsenal of unmanned vehicles.
On Sunday, the Islamic Republic News Agency and Press TV, both mouthpieces of Tehran, claimed that the Iranian army had forced down a U.S. RQ-170 that had crossed into Iran from western Afghanistan.
The RQ-170 is a moderately stealthy flying-wing drone designed and built in limited numbers by Lockheed Martin sometime in the last decade. The fighter-size robot aircraft was first photographed at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan in 2007. The Air Force confirmed its existence in 2009, but has released few specifications.
Apparently fitted with video cameras and data links, the jet-powered RQ-170 provided surveillance during the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in May. The drone has also reportedly been spotted in South Korea. Analysts believe the RQ-170 has been flying missions over both North Korea and Iran, possibly in order to gather intelligence on nuclear facilities.
Escalating tensions over Iran’s apparent nuclear weapons program could explain the RQ-170’s alleged continued activity over Iran. Several news outlets have speculated that Israel is preparing a mission to destroy Iranian nuclear installations. During a recent speech, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that Washington could also use military force to prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons. The first step in any raid would be aerial reconnaissance.
Iranian media claims that the RQ-170 was brought down by an “electronic warfare unit” and crashed with only “little damage.” If true, that could mean the Iranians jammed the drone’s navigational systems and forced it to the ground. The Air Force has been working hard to develop more secure systems for its unmanned vehicles, which to date rely heavily on radio links to operators on the ground.
If the reports are accurate and Iran now possesses a mostly intact RQ-170, it could jeopardize the Air Force’s drone secrets and its efforts to collect data on Iran’s nuclear activities.