The Iranian media claimed Sunday that it had downed a U.S. RQ-170 "Sentinel" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was operating in its airspace. On Monday, an unnamed American official acknowledged for the first time in the U.S. media that a UAV of that type had gone down in Iranian territory.
The RQ-170 is a flying wing design with low-observability characteristics — a stealth UAV — designed and built by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division. The craft was first photographed in 2007 at Kandahar Airfield and quickly dubbed "the beast of Kandahar." From the few photographs available, it appears to consist of a fairly low-cost rendition of known stealth characteristics, applied to existing UAV technology to create an airframe designed to penetrate and operate in higher threat environments and in denied airspace. While this model was not necessarily meant to be expendable, operations in denied environments — and therefore the prospect of loss in enemy territory — were undoubtedly a core design consideration.
That sort of denied environment is nothing like what exists in Afghanistan, where medium- and high-altitude UAV operations face next to no threat. In other words, the only reason the Sentinel would be present in Afghanistan would be to use the country as a base of operations for flights elsewhere. Reports suggest that at least one Sentinel was involved in providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in preparation for and during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Logic suggests those reports are correct.
The story an unnamed source conveyed to NBC — that a UAV operating in western Afghanistan experienced difficulty and veered by chance into Iran before crashing — matches the overall reaction by the United States and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to the incident. But that narrative is at best highly suspect. The Sentinel clearly operates from Afghanistan and has been a component of ISR operations over Iran for years now. And after a sufficient number of flights, the prospect of a Sentinel crashing — through some combination of mechanical, technical and human error, or because Iran finds a way to bring one down — begins to approach certainty.
When the Soviet Union brought down Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960, the Soviets knew full well that the United States was running flights over its territory — it just lacked the technology to engage a target at that altitude. When Powers crossed into Soviet airspace, air defenses were on high alert. As the story goes, the U-2 stalled (it flew at the very edge of its flight envelope to stay at that altitude) and began to lose altitude as it attempted to restart its engines. Soviet air defenses engaged the target with everything they had, bringing down one of their own planes along with Powers’ U-2.
The U-2 was not stealthy, but stealth is not some intangible capability that renders the aircraft undetectable. It makes engagement harder by reducing signatures and observability. But as a savvy Yugoslav air defense battery commander demonstrated in 1999, by bringing down an American F-117 "Nighthawk" that was part of a predictable and observable pattern of behavior, the technology is hardly foolproof.
Iran has deftly maximized, through an ongoing denial and deception program, the intelligence challenges it presents its adversaries. For its own part, the United States has shown no serious interest, since the campaign in Iraq began to go downhill in the middle of the last decade, in accepting the risk that a serious air campaign against Iran entails.
But the world is not defined by black-and-white distinctions. The United States and Iran are not in a state of war, but neither are they at peace. There has been little doubt for years that the United States and Israel — in addition to using their space-based assets to intensively surveil Iran — have actively engaged in a comprehensive covert campaign meant to pinpoint and undermine Tehran’s nuclear weapons program through all available means — cyberattack, assassination, sabotage, technology and building the most accurate picture possible of the physical layout of Iran’s program.
At stake is an intense struggle over the balance of power in the Middle East. And just as during the Cold War, so-called "acts of war" are committed on a routine basis by both sides. The intelligence that more intrusive UAV flights can provide — even considering what space-based surveillance is now capable of providing — is too valuable. Because of how much is at stake for both Washington and Tehran, the idea that Washington would not actively engage in overflights is as improbable as the notion that an American stealth UAV was operating innocently on the Afghan side of the Afghan-Iranian border.