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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Tale of the RQ-170

On 4 Dec 2011 an RQ-170 drone came down in North-eastern Iran, about 250km from the Afghanistan border, and led to a brief unresolved diplomatic incident; the US government ultimately admitted, after considerable prevarication, that the surveillance drone was operated by the CIA and asked that it be returned.

More disturbingly, Iran claimed that the drone was captured, not shot down, “by their own ways and means.”  Subsequent reports detailed how this was claimed to be accomplished by jamming the encrypted control signal.  Others have suggested an even more sophisticated cyberattack which hacked the command link while masking the intrusion from the aircraft’s erstwhile controllers.  Whatever the explanation the self-destruct protocol one assumes would be provided didn’t function or was not invoked.

Dick Cheney’s criticism that it should have been destroyed by an immediate air strike, while instructive, failed to consider that the CIA may have by then completely lost track of it.

Fars, the semi-official Iranian news agency, reported that both Russia and China had been “most aggressive in their pursuit of details on the drone” and most defence analysts agreed that “reverse engineering” was inevitable though opinions varied on the impact on the operational superiority enjoyed by classified US stealth assets.  Whatever the outcome the active intelligence gathering missions targeting Iran’s nuclear program had become public:

The overflights by the bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, built by Lockheed Martin and first glimpsed on an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009, are part of an increasingly aggressive intelligence collection program aimed at Iran, current and former officials say. The urgency of the effort has been underscored by a recent public debate in Israel about whether time is running out for a military strike to slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon.

Scott Shane and David E Sanger – Drone Crash in Iran Reveals Secret U.S. Surveillance Effort NYT 7 Dec 11

The political consequences were largely subsumed in the almost universal bipartisan acknowledgement that such actions were prudent and necessary.

So why bring this up now?  Because it is a good reference point when considering perhaps the biggest foreign policy issue facing the US, the Iranian nuclear enrichment program.  It is abundantly clear that while we are headed into the same territory as the controversy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 the current threat is being treated with considerably more respect as a matter of national security by all concerned.

The president has consistently asserted that he would not let Iran develop a nuclear weapon; the reader is left to imagine how that prohibition would be enforced but the assumption is clear.  In this respect Likud, Republicans and other actors merely differ on where they would draw the “red line” that would trigger military intervention; some sooner, some later, some whenever Israel says so; but by all accounts we stand at or near the Rubicon.

Just recently an unusually capable drone appeared over the Mediterranean coast of Israel and was shot down:

The leader of Hezbollah claimed today his group was responsible for an unidentified drone that flew deep into Israeli airspace on Saturday before it was shot out of the sky by the Israeli Air Force, and that the aircraft was Iranian-made.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the militant Lebanon-based group, made the revelations in a televised address today and boasted that the drone had been able to fly hundreds of kilometers undetected before it entered Israel, then tens of kilometers over Israel before it was eventually shot down.

Alexander Marquardt – Hezbollah: That Was Our ‘Iran-Made’ Drone Over Israel ABC 11 Oct 12

While noting that “tens of kilometers” isn’t very “deep” and Hizbollah drones are not exactly new this one flew a long distance on a complex route to reach its target which was close to some of Israel’s more sensitive sites.  Then the Patriots appeared:

A Patriot surface-to-air missile battery was deployed in Haifa two days after the incident. Israel Defense Forces officials said that the deployment was not an emergency measure, and that such systems are deployed to the area from time to time.

IDF officials refused to comment on the possible connection between the drone, which was intercepted on Saturday, and the Patriot missile system deployment.

Avi Issacharoff – WATCH: Hezbollah video simulates flight path of drone that breached Israeli airspace Haaretz 11 Oct 12

Aggregating the uncertainties of the Syrian civil war, the renewed threat of rocket attacks from Lebanon or Gaza, the continued deployment of significant military forces in the Gulf, the conflicting claims of the existence or imminence of an Iranian nuclear weapon “break-out” and the strong rhetoric from the Israeli leadership one would be forgiven concern and elevated sensitivity to indications of escalating conflict.


  1. fogiv

    if what’s being reported to have been, er, reported (unprecedented knowledge of program facilities), safe to say targeting plans are undergoing furious revision and update.  


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