The recent crash of a top secret American RQ-170 stealth drone in Iran raises several issues.
Last week the Iranian government claimed it had shot down an American spy drone deep within Iranian territory, using ‘electronic’ means. American military disinformation operatives stated that the drone actually came down along the Iran Afghanistan frontier, while flying missions in Afghanistan.
But a story in Atlanticwire confirms that the drone actually came down deep in Iranian territory, (140 miles from the frontier) and that the autonomously piloted aircraft likely crashed due to ‘catastrophic malfunctions’ of its control system.
The Atlantic points out that the US government has long flown drone surveillance flights over Iranian territory. (Last week this blog discussed the role of drone flight over frontiers as a destabilising factor). Flying at 50,000 feet, with stealth technology, it is believed RQ-170 is beyond Iran’s to shoot down or perhaps even detect. Stories in late 2009 noted that because the Taliban lack the technology to shoot down even conventional drones, the only reason to deploy the RQ170 in Afghanistan must be to fly them over neighbouring countries, (of which Iran would be the most obvious target-ed).
The long history of American drone flights over bases in Afghanistan supports the widespread contention that the NATO occupation of Afghanistan is as much to do with its strategic location adjacent to American arch-enemy Iran, as any other factor. Reluctance of the US to abandon the failed Afghanistan occupation has to be viewed in light of their desire to maintain a military presence on that border with Iran.
Another issue that has come up is the loss of secret technology that protects American ‘stealth’ aircraft. The stealth technology that protects the RQ-170 appears to be the same or similiar technology used in the new F-35 fighter jets that the US is building. The Iranian capture of a plane using this technology probably guarantees that US stealth secrets will be spread widely. This would severely degrade the value of the stealth version of the beleagured F-35.
The ‘catastrophic malfunction’ of the drone’s control system also gives pause. This is the most sophisticated drone in the American fleet, used in sensitive incursions in the sovereign territory of other countries. That the absolutely best technology available to the US military can fail at crucial times severely undermines the credibility of drone advocates that claim that drones can be operated safely over civilian airspace. Widespread crashes by drones fuel fears of the safety of the entire genre of unpiloted aircraft.
This extensive article in the New York times gives extensive analysis of the implications of the crash.