Iran's state news agency on Tuesday reported claims by the Iranian military that it had captured a US Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or spy drone, operating in or near its airspace by hacking the controls and bringing it safely to the ground.
The claims were quickly refuted by the US Navy, who said that none of their planes were missing.
The FARS News Agency reports:
The UAV which had conducted several reconnaissance flights over the Persian Gulf general zone in the past few days was caught and brought under control by air defense units and control systems of the IRGC Navy.
The IRGC navy commander announced that the hunted UAV was a ScanEagle drone, adding that "such drones are usually launched from large warships."
Fadavi further noted that the IRGC has full intelligence supremacy over foreign forces' moves in the Persian Gulf.
ScanEagle is a small, low-cost, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing.
This is not the first drone the Iranians claimed to have captured and follows on repeated warnings from Tehran that continued use of drones along the border or within its airspace would not be tolerated.
Here's video from Press TV in Iran:
The US Navy says it did not lose the drone, arguing the ScanEagle is an "off the shelf variety" and could have belonged to another country.
"The U.S. Navy has complete control over every unmanned vehicle we operate in the Middle East," said Cmd. Jason Salata of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, which manages naval assets in the region. "We have lost ScanEagles in the past, but not recently."
But, as The Atlantic's Dashell Bennett points out, "the U.S. Navy isn't the only outfit that might be watching the skies over Iran these days." Bennet writes:
It was one year ago today that Iran revealed that it took down a U.S. spy plane, but that drone reportedly belonged to the CIA, not the Navy. (Iran claims they hacked the drone remotely and forced it down; the U.S. says it crashed.) So even if the Navy is telling the truth, the Iranians may still have something that belongs to us.
Iran has filed at least eight complaints with the United Nations that the U.S. has invaded its airspace, and back in October, they fired on a U.S. Predator drone that was flying over the Persian Gulf. But that also hasn't stopped Iran from bragging about its own ability to spy on Israel (who might be another possible culprit?) or claims to have hacked and reverse engineered the spy plane that they found last year. Whatever happened with this particular plane, this covert battle in the skies is slowly becoming the active front where any possible war with Iran will begin.
And David Axe, writing at Wired.com's Danger Room blog, adds:
Just four feet long, the camera-equipped Scan Eagle flies low and slow — barely 80 miles per hour. It navigates autonomously following pre-programmed GPS waypoints for up to 24 hours, but generally stays within a hundred miles of its operators so that it can relay video via line-of-sight radio.
After the ubiquitous, hand-thrown Raven, the Scan Eagle is one of the most common drones in the world, with more than 1,000 in use by military and scientific agencies. It was originally designed to help fishermen track schools of tuna and, in its standard model, contains no secret technology. The Air Force and Boeing-Insitu didn’t hesitate to show me around their Scan Eagle unit in Afghanistan.
Iranian commander Fadavi said the downed Scan Eagle had been launched by a U.S. aircraft carrier. It’s true the Americans have a flattop in the region: the USS John C. Stennis. But carriers do not routinely deploy the catapult and tower-mounted hook for launching and landing Scan Eagles, as they could interfere with regular flight ops.
But that doesn’t mean the Scan Eagle couldn’t have come from the sea. The tiny drone is compatible with Navy destroyers, amphibious ships and patrol boats and is also launched by the Ponce, the Navy’s floating Persian Gulf staging base for minehunters, boats and Special Operations Forces. With as many as 22 Scan Eagles in the air at any given time, according to Boeing, the U.S. could virtually swarm the Iranian coast with the small flying robots, if it wished.