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Fallen US Drone Nearly Led to Covert Strike in Iran

John Hudson

This undated handout image courtesy of Truthdowser, shows a rendition of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinal drone. Iran's military said December 4, 2011 that it shot down a US Reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran. (Photo by AFP)

New reports on the CIA drone lost in Iran last week reveal the scope of the stealth plane's mission and just how far the U.S. was willing to go to recover it. The Associated Press reports on Wednesday that despite U.S. military statements Monday suggesting the drone was lost while flying a mission in western Afghanistan, Iranian officials say the RQ-170 drone was detected about 140 miles from the border of Afghanistan, deep inside the country's air space. U.S. officials, speaking on background, confirmed the RQ-170 drone had been spying on Iran for years but did not indicate the extent to which it penetrated Iranian air space. They did say the U.S. air base in Shindad, Afghanistan, was designed to launch "surveillance missions and even special operations missions into Iran if deemed necessary." 

In a sign of how badly the U.S. wanted the stealth drone back, The Wall Street Journal reports that it contemplated three different operations to recover the fallen drone. One plan involved sending commandos in Afghanistan assisted by U.S. agents in Iran to track down and recover the drone. "Another option would have had a team sneak in to blow up the remaining pieces of the drone," reports the Journal. "A third option would have been to destroy the wreckage with an airstrike."

In the end, officials decided not to carry out the mission for two reasons: a) they feared the strike could be considered an "act of war" and b) it crashed in such a remote area of Iran that officials hoped it wouldn't be found "therefore, leaving the remains where they were could be the safest option."
So what went wrong? While Iran maintains that it shot down the plane using anti-aircraft weaponry, sources inside and outside the military explain to Reuters that most signs indicate a technical malfunction because of the way the RQ-170 is programmed. "The aircraft is flown remotely by pilots based in the United States, but is also programmed to autonomously fly back to the base it departed from if its data link with U.S.-based pilots is lost," a defense analyst who consults for Lockheed told the news agency. "The fact that the plane did not return to its base suggests a 'catastrophic' technical malfunction," another industry insider familiar with drone technology attested. Additionally, "several current and former defense officials" said shooting down the drone was unlikely because of the aircraft's anti-radar coating and ability to fly at high altitudes.
On the plus side, officials told The Journal they doubted Iran would be able to reverse engineer the complex craft and officials speaking to Reuters said the drone's computer files would likely be difficult to decipher as well. "If it survived a crash, all on-board computer equipment was heavily encrypted."

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