December 4, 2011. Tehran. Iranian State news announced today that Iranian defense forces detected an initially unidentified aircraft entering Iranian air space on its eastern border with Afghanistan. An unnamed Iranian military official confirmed that once the aircraft was positively identified as a Lockheed Martin unmanned drone, a new stealth design used exclusively by the US and NATO, Iranian forces shot down the craft. While the incident is only hours old, US officials have already publicly conceded the claim is probably accurate.
RQ-170 stealth recon unmanned plane built by Lockheed Martin
There are three reasons the Iranian claims of downing a US stealth aircraft this morning are most likely true.
- According to the Iranian State news agency IRNA, the US aircraft was only minimally damaged. The anonymous Iranian official insists the Lockheed Martin craft has already been found on Iranian soil and captured in relatively good shape. “The unmanned craft is of the type RQ-170 which was slightly damaged is currently in the hands of the Iranian forces,“ the Iranian news agency reported.
- The International Security Assistance Force, the US-led military force operating in Afghanistan, had already released a statement confirming that they’d lost control of a US unmanned drone flying a mission over western Afghanistan last week. “The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week. The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status,” the ISAF statement said.
- This isn’t the first time the Iranian military has shot down US stealth aircraft violating its airspace. In January of this year, Iranian officials announced they had shot down two more US unmanned military drones operating over Iranian soil. The repeated success in downing the US stealth aircraft was evident in the announcement by the Iranian state media today. “Armed forces with a dominant control over the country’s borders managed to indentify and down the invading plane,” today’s announcement from Iran proclaimed.
According to the US Air Force, the RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aircraft is the latest addition to US air force’s ever-growing armada of drone vehicles. Introduced into service this year, the USAF website still categorizes the RQ-170 Sentinel as a future weapon, still being tested. The most recent documentation the USAF has available on its site is from December 2, 2010.
The statement reads, “The RQ-170 is a low observable unmanned aircraft system (UAS) being developed, tested and fielded by the Air Force. It will provide reconnaissance and surveillance in support of the joint forces commander.” The Air Force also confirms, “The RQ-170 is flown by Air Combat Command’s 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada., and the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nevada.”
While the US commander in Afghanistan stated that the intrusion upon Iranian airspace was an accident and not a spy mission over the Islamic state, the unnamed Iranian military official wasn’t sympathetic. “This is a clear example of aggression on Iran’s borders” the Iranian official remarked, adding, “Iranian armed forces are fully ready to counter any aggression.”
The UK’s Guardian elaborated on Iran’s own military unmanned drone program. As far back as three years ago, Iranian officials announced they had successfully produced an unmanned drone force capable of operating as far as 600 miles from Iran. Developing both offensive military strike craft as well as reconnaissance drones, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened the veils of secrecy last year, showing the world Iran’s first mass-produced unmanned bomber. The Iranian leader referred to the aircraft as Iran’s, “ambassador of death”.
While the US military is quiet about the use and deployment of its RQ-170 Sentinels, this isn’t the first time the unmanned stealth spy plane has been observed in action. As far back as 2007, Aviation Week reported the craft was sited operating at Kandahar International Airport. In 2010, South Korea’s JoongAng Daily reported that the crafts were being flown over the Korean peninsula on a regular basis. Local Korean media speculated that the unmanned drone force was being moved to Osan Air Base in South Korea to replace the US’s aging U-2 fleet of aircraft.
Most recently, the RQ-170 was reported to have been used in the May assassination of Osama bin laden in Pakistan. Reports, including sources as public as Wikipedia, report that while the Navy Seal team was dropped into the Pakistani compound to take out bin laden, the RQ-170 flew overhead. The live-feed video footage President Obama and his advisors watched of the bin Laden raid was supposedly provided by a RQ-170.
Anonymous US officials hinted that the loss of a high-tech stealth aircraft to the Iranian regime isn’t as bad as it sounds at first. Without any official statement from the USAF in recent history, it’s impossible to confirm. But many experts contend that the US military is aware that the RQ-170 unmanned drone isn’t as stealthy as it was originally billed. For that reason, they assume the USAF has withheld its most modern and top secret stealth mechanics from the RQ-170. Acknowledging the likelihood of a downed craft falling into enemy hands, that would explain why the craft has been repeatedly shot down by the Iranians.