December 4th, 2012
08:24 AM ET

Drones: A sign of the times

Editor's note: A version of this post was originally published in November, and re-posted in light of the new claims by Iran that it has captured a U.S. drone.

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.

In November, for the first time, Iran tried to bring down a U.S. drone as it flew off the Iranian coastline in the northern Persian Gulf. On Tuesday, a unit from Iran's navy says it has captured a U.S. drone flying over the Persian Gulf, but a Pentagon official says all U.S. drones in the area are accounted for.

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. In November, 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. In October, 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's been 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.

Filed under: drones • Iran • Pentagon
soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. Paddle App

    I remember this video I wonder if it was all make-believe. Iran was also working on a mock up of an American aircraft carrier at some point to. Propaganda,Propaganda!

    June 11, 2017 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  2. sheepdip

    Y'know, warz like ahsum.. n as long asya goinga kill, us robots.. uh, huih... muzzies asd stone albork

    March 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  3. Tatiana Covington

    Why is everyone so surprised? I knew about these in 1962 when I read Sheckley's story "Watchbird".

    February 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  4. venze

    Spying, spying, spying; surveillance, surveillance, surveillance; all in the name of security measure.
    Nothing to hide, nowhere to hide, everyone is as naked as everyone can be. What next? Soft X-ray machines everywhere. Why wear anything then?

    February 7, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Reply
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  8. Martin

    Drones make Allah shiver with fear.

    December 5, 2012 at 7:14 am | Reply
  9. Andy

    Drones will eradicate terrorism.

    December 4, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      So drones can mind control humans now?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:00 am | Reply
  10. Jannani

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    December 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • Andy

      Precisely!! You are making an excellent point in favor of the drone technology!! Drones obviate the need to invade a country. The US can eradicate terrorists by precision bombs using drones in a country without actually invading that country.

      December 4, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Reply
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    December 4, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  16. EndTheFed

    The FAA estimates there will be 20,000 to 30,000 drones over the US by 2020. They're just beta testing them in the Middle East for when they clamp down on us.

    December 4, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • Silverado

      Thank you FAA. Get more drones. Tag each Muzzie living here with an electronic beacon and let a drone track them 24×7. Get one drone for each Muzzie if you have to. Just keep America safe. Do you know two Muzzies were arrested in Florida last week who were planning mass murder. Let drones track such people.

      December 4, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Reply
  17. Frank

    Drones are here to stay. Stone age mind set needs to go. Did you see they are still crucifying people in Yemen? Shooting school girls in Pakistan? Forcibly strapping suicide vests on little kids in Pakistan? Modern technology can exterminate those Allah people who are clinging on to their old ways and refusing to become humans.

    December 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • Shoeb

      are you even serious in saying all that? so much hate in you with ignorance to truth at its peak...

      never thought there are people like your statement and please dont always believe the internet and media...try finding the right way – visit Pakistan or Yemen or keep your senseless comments with you sir.

      March 6, 2013 at 8:04 am | Reply
  18. George Patton

    I'm only glad that the U.S. and Great Britain are no longer the only countries to have these horrific weapons. With other countries also possessing them, maybe the right-wing thugs in Washington will be less anxious to start another one of their obnoxious wars! That's just wishful thinking, of course!!!

    December 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • Sam

      Yes, the US and the UK have good drones. Israel has really awesome drones too. However, the rest of the drones are not much worth talking about – Google does not even allow them to use Google Maps; so, they have to use Apple maps. Imagine that!

      December 4, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  19. Silverado

    Drones make Muzzies pray harder.

    December 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  20. Norman

    Sooner or later one of these drones will run into a civilian airliner, causing a crash and lots of innocent casualties.
    There will a hue and cry over the authorities' abusing civil rights, etc. Technology always produced unintended consequences, and the drones represent one of the more crazy aspects of that.

    December 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Drone will run into a passenger aircraft? Ha ha ha ha. Good joke!! That can never happen... I know you are being sarcastic, but watch out.... Those stone age countries like Yemen or Pakistan are so gullible that they may actually take your joke seriously and blame all those "zionists" drone owners for their airline accidents. Ha ha ha.

      December 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  21. Chuk

    Wait till the table turns. Then those who are singing the praise of drones may start thinking differently. The world should not be moving towards summarily "dismissing" anyone without a due process, no matter how much we dislike them. And yet, that's where we are headed. For those who think that's a good idea,"what's good for the goose is good for the ...". Just saying.

    December 4, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
    • Heime

      All hail the mighty drone.

      December 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • Heime

      summarily dismissing someone without due process??? Don't confuse the action to take out a wartime enemy with arresting a shoplifter at a convenience store.

      December 4, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
    • Silverado

      Yep. Tables have turned on Muzzie Taliban. Muzzie Taliban were shooting school girls. Now drones are shooting Muzzie Taliban. Enjoy!

      December 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  22. Portland tony

    Good lord....From the comments you'd think that all UAVs carry death and destruction. The majority are basically model aircraft with unsophisticated reconnaissance sensors such as TV cameras with night vision capabilities. Some can monitor SIGINT and others just supplement satellite surveillance. There primary purpose is to monitor activity that may present a threat to the operator. Granted some of the more
    sophisticated "drone" can carry missiles but they are in the minority. And as far as domestic surveillance satellites can read your license plate so if big brother bothers with it

    December 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  23. hopefulspam

    Read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card!!!

    December 4, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  24. boyamidumb

    Terminator – just a step away.

    Today we are teaching our children to play violent video games – the next day we are putting them in front of screens driving real bombs half a world away (at the moment) killing people at random. Tomorrow they could be killing our/their neighbors. It's not that farfetched. The further we get away from the actual horror of war and the consequences of what we do, the easier it becomes. Is that where we want our children to go? Is that where we want humanity to go?

    NO!! We dropped the first and only nukes ever to be used against innocent people. We lead the way in chemical and biological weapons – when and where do we stop these people???? Are these people us???? It may be too late to wake up now, but we have to try. This is not some whacko fantasy – this is on the news every night and surprise! We are the bad guys.

    December 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • Borg

      Resistance is Futile!

      December 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply

    DRONES....Coming to your own police state soon. Don't worry though, they will only be used "for your own good"...

    December 4, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • boyamidumb

      you are only off by a day or two.



      When we find out it may be too late.

      December 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • Silverado

      Awesome. We need some drones here. Too many Muzzies have immigrated. Somebody or something needs to keep an eye on them.

      December 4, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      How's that any different from the choppers that are flying over our metropolitan areas?

      December 5, 2012 at 12:01 am | Reply
    • Ryan

      It saves war cost! I got it (?)
      It kills Muzzi who still live in stoneage! I got it (??)
      It saves life by not sending the soldier on warfield! I got it (???)
      BUT........what will happen when a crazy drone operator turn those precision weapons onto another Sandy Hook???
      Now we are fighting with NRA to ban assault weapons but who we will blame than? Pentagon? congress? Or country as a whole??? I DONT GET IT. Really I dont.

      February 7, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
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  35. Martin

    Allah fears drones.

    December 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  36. Chuck

    Its what the story of the Termintor is all about with Skynet
    life imitating art

    December 4, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  37. Pan3

    It's the sign of the times. Modern technology, it can be a double edge sword.

    December 4, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  38. allenwoll

    Long-distance drones need to be guided via satellite - It is obvious where THAT leads.

    December 4, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Scott B

      ? They already are.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • tokencode

      A lot of cars are guided by satellite as well. GPS sats are publically available.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
      • Mike

        He's talking about sending telemetry data and receiving flight instructions via satellite. Most drones don't fly themselves (some do, but even then, most of those are still in R&D).

        December 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  39. jon

    Why does the US trust the government to have drones over their own skies? It is stupid. Can you say police state?

    December 4, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  40. Rezat

    Sounds like uncle Sam sends an early Christmas gift to Iran. Problem is its losing its surprise factor.
    Every year is a drone 😦

    December 4, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
    • boyamidumb

      Iran is just a place to test these new tools of oppression.

      Think about that the next time YOU are driving down the road. Wonder who's watching? It may be them. It may be them. And if you do or say what they don't like -- you -- become the target + in the crosshairs. And it may be your son pushing the button on his console.

      December 4, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  41. San

    Drones kill families.

    December 4, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Maybe it's time for those families to start distancing themselves from their terrorist members then.

      December 4, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
      • Silverado

        Highly recommended.

        December 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jason

      Welcome to war.

      December 5, 2012 at 12:00 am | Reply
  42. Navaid

    American public is being morally weak in allowing our government to use drones without rules of engagement. We are justifying it because we can do it, and others cannot. The next step beyond drones is, tiny drones that can fly into your house and hunt you down. We have provided CIA is a free license to kill and assassinate anyone without due process and in violation of international law. But this is very short sighted. This will backfire. With in 10 years, many countries including will have drones. China will eventually have mass manufactured miniature drones that are x10 as precise, effective and undetectable, as today's drones, at assassinating anybody anywhere in the world who is getting in the way of a repressive regimen. What if some country starts using tiny drones to assassinate people in America? What type of moral arguments are you going to use to convince them that it is wrong. The longer we think international law does not apply to America, the bigger hole we dig for ourselves. Or maybe, there is nothing we can do about direction of history. Capabilities of War is driven by envelop of technology, and we then adopt our morals to that reality? I just hope that is not the case.

    December 4, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
    • San

      Sir/Madam – You make sense. Exactly my thoughts. I hope people realize that the government is committing crimes in their names and using their tax dollars. That`s blood on everyone's hands.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Reply
    • allenwoll

      T e s t

      December 4, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • Scott B

      Nah, the tide of history is not insurmountable here. If it was, we we would have already had multiple nuclear exchanges across the world. In hindsight, we did get lucky that the Soviets developed them soon after us. Sadly, I'm afraid something awful will have to happen to wake people up to the long term consequences.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
    • allenwoll

      Attempted to reply, but was rejected.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Drones ARE used with rules of engagement. Drone operators don't just fly them around, shooting at anything that moves like some kind of video game. They have to receive confirmation that they're allowed to strike the target before they can fire on it.

      December 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • xyzthegreat

      Do the terrorists have any moral? do they think twice before killing innocents?
      USA is just doing the right thing. The other option is war which has far worse consequences.

      Targeted killing of terrorists reduce collateral damage. Go USA, go DRONES.

      December 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  43. allenwoll

    Consider Personal Mini-Drones.

    December 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  44. Scott B

    If we were smart and had any foresight, we would see the road this leads to, banned them, and made them a war crime. Wait until anyone can fly one anywhere in the world for a small investment. Just imagine the military state that will be needed to protect from them. Imagine what happens when wars can be fought using remote control.

    December 4, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • allenwoll

      There is no need to wait !

      December 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • Martin

      Allah fears drones.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  45. Hahahahahahahaha

    They should wrap a towel around the front and put a beard on it to hide them better!!!!!! Hahahahahhaha

    December 4, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
    • Earl

      Hahahahahaha. Good one!! That will go completely unnoticed.

      December 4, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply

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