By Tim Lister, CNN
It seems they are everywhere, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the vast tracts of the Sahara, searching the terrain and seas below like glinting birds of prey. Drones have become the emblem of war and intelligence-gathering in the 21st century.
And for the first time, Iran has tried to bring down a U.S. drone as it flew off the Iranian coastline in the northern Persian Gulf.
The United States says Iranian jets fired on an unarmed MQ-1 Predator on November 1 while it was on a routine surveillance mission above international waters. The Defense Department said the drone was 16 miles from the Iranian coast.
"The internationally recognized territorial limit is 12 nautical miles off the coast, and we never entered the 12 nautical-mile limit," said George Little, Pentagon spokesman, on Thursday.
Given the tensions between the two governments, the Predator’s exact position will not have deterred the Iranians. Maj. Gen. Seyed Masoud Jazaeri told the semi-official Fars news agency Friday that "The Iranian armed forces will respond decisively to any act of transgression. ... If any foreign planes try to enter our country's [air]space, our armed forces will confront it."
Despite two passes, the pair of Iranian Sukhoi-25 jets were unable to hit the Predator, which safely returned to base - possibly in Qatar or Kuwait (but U.S. officials remain tight-lipped about its home base). Freedom of navigation in the Gulf - through which one-fifth of the world’s crude output travels - is a vital interest to the U.S. and its regional allies.
So why did Iranian jets try to bring the drone down?
“First, and most probable, senior Iranian leadership intended to fire a shot across the bow of the next U.S. administration and gain political momentum in the run-up to talks” on Iran’s nuclear program, says Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group.
“This drone affair confirms Iran's risk-acceptant posture,” Kupchan adds.
He also notes that the planes involved were not those of the Iranian air force but belonged to the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), which is very often more aggressive toward the U.S. presence in the Gulf. Its small patrol boats have been known to harass U.S. naval vessels in the region. It may be that the IRGC was acting unilaterally, but Kupchan believes that unlikely because of the risk of escalation.
Tensions in the Gulf are never far away. This week the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations wrote to the U.N. secretary general to complain about Iranian harassment against Saudi oil facilities, alleging that an Iranian helicopter had approached rigs in the offshore Hasba oilfield several times.
At sea, U.S. military commanders worry about a mistake, when harassment leads to something more and a quick escalation.
Cost and benefit
U.S. drones operate over Yemen and Afghanistan with the host government’s agreement. They operate over Pakistan unimpeded but against the wishes of the Pakistani authorities. They fly above Somalia in the absence of any effective authority there.
But Iran sees them as an affront to its sovereignty. And if captured or shot down they can be a trove of valuable technology (though some of the crown jewels can be destroyed remotely) as well as a propaganda trophy.
Iran has already garnered one propaganda victory in the last year. In December 2011 a high-altitude RQ-170 Sentinel crashed in the Iranian desert after leaving an airbase in Afghanistan. The unarmed UAV was on a mission to monitor Iranian nuclear facilities, according to U.S. officials who would not speak on the record.
The Iranians recovered the Sentinel in good shape (judging from video of its exterior appearance) and paraded it to the media. Tehran subsequently boasted that technicians had been able to reverse-engineer its capabilities, though experts doubt that. There was even a market in toy drones, complete with slogans such as “We will crush Amrican hegemony” [sic] and “Captured by the IRanian Muslim Youth” (the IR is capitalized on the box.) The Farsi text on the box describes it as “the most advanced American spy unmanned aircraft.” Move over, Lego.
There is another risk in the widespread use of drones. Sometimes the victims are not those targeted, but civilians. This has happened in Pakistan and Yemen and helped fuel an anti-American backlash. This week, Yemen’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tawakul Karman, told the Financial Times that the Yemeni people rejected drones, whether they were American or Yemeni, and argued they helped terrorist groups to recruit. That is a view shared by Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen and author of "The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles, to give drones their formal description, are vulnerable in some environments. They are slow: the Predator has a maximum speed of 135 mph. Flown remotely, often from thousands of miles away, and relying on satellite links for instructions, there are more things that can go wrong than if a pilot had control.
Weapon of choice
Even so, drones have become so effective as part of the modern military arsenal that everyone wants them. Besides the United States, China is developing its own line, Israel manufactures and exports them. The New America Foundation estimates that more than 70 countries have drones of some sort (though the vast majority are for surveillance.)
Iran has developed a series of drones -– the Ababil (Swallow) family - and in September unveiled what it claimed was a long-range drone capable of carrying missiles to a distance of more than 1,200 miles (2,000 kms.)
Rebels in Syria claim that Tehran has also supplied the al-Assad regime with surveillance drones and believe they are being used to guide air strikes against rebel units. They have even posted video of captured drones (though they look far from sophisticated) on YouTube.
Iran also appears to have supplied at least drone components to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. Last month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the group had assembled an Iranian-designed drone and flown it 35 miles (50 kms) inside Israel before it was shot down by Israeli jets. It was not the first Hezbollah had launched into Israeli airspace, but none has been very advanced – and their drones lack the control afforded by satellite precision.
Iran is not the first U.S. adversary to try to bring down one of its drones. "Non-state" actors such as terror groups in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, Yemen and Somalia, do not have planes nor the surface-to-air missiles capable of bringing down a drone. But in December 2002, when Saddam Hussein was still in power, an Iraqi fighter (another Sukhoi-25 to be precise) shot down a Predator with an air-to-air missile.
In those days, the U.S. had less than 100 Predators. By 2011, Predators had clocked up more than a million hours in flying time for the U.S. Air Force, according to the USAF website. And that's aside from the CIA's fleet.
It is almost exactly 10 years (November 3 to be exact) since the Predator made its first kill. The victim was Ali al-Harithi, a Yemeni allegedly involved in planning the bombing of the USS Cole. One Hellfire missile took out al-Harithi and several others as they traveled in a 4×4 close to Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. Since then, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation, somewhere between 1,600 and 2,800 militants have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone.
The use of armed drones against al Qaeda and associated groups in the Afghan-Pakistan border region has increased exponentially during President Barack Obama’s tenure – and has also expanded in other theaters such as the Horn of Africa and Yemen. As al Qaeda and associated jihadist groups gravitate toward North Africa – especially Mali and Libya – French officials have said that it’s possible drones will be sent to the region. Their role would be to assist a yet-to-be-deployed African force tasked with freeing northern Mali from the control of Islamist groups.
As drones have become indispensable to both the military and intelligence agencies (not to mention many other civilian applications), defense contractors have plowed money into research and development.
In the United States, San Diego is the hub of the industry. According to a study by the Institute for Policy Research in the National University System, drone production was worth $1.3 billion to the local economy last year, based on an analysis of Defense Department contracts. Production is forecast to double by the end of the decade – so the prospect of another brief encounter between a UAV and someone who doesn’t want it around becomes ever more likely.