The Case of the 'Deadly' Drone
An unmanned aircraft with a 25-foot wingspan is at the center of a US/UN weapons controversy.
AL-TAJI, IRAQ — Iraq rolled out a controversial drone aircraft Wednesday, in an effort to rebut American claims that Iraq could use it to spread chemical and biological weapons.
The primitive craft - its wings held together with tin foil and duct tape, and two wooden propellers bolted to engines far smaller than those of a lawn mower - looked more like a high-school science project than the "smoking gun" that could spark a war.
"We are really astonished when we hear that this [craft] has been 'discovered' by inspection teams, [as] it has been declared in detail," said Ibrahim Hussein, an Iraqi Air Force general. "Nothing was hidden about it."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that this drone "should be of concern to everybody," and American officials have sought to portray the issue as one of a series of Iraqi disarmament missteps. Britain also called Wednesday for "an accounting for unmanned aerial vehicles" as one of its six disarmament conditions for Iraq.
To stave off an invasion, Baghdad is stepping up rebuttals of such US allegations. US officials said Tuesday that high altitude U-2 surveillance planes, provided by the US Air Force, were threatened by Iraq and recalled. Iraq refuted the allegation within an hour of it becoming public, saying that two aircraft entered Iraqi airspace when only one had been approved.
The remotely piloted drone - with "God is Great" written in Arabic along the fuselage and on each wing, with a red permanent marker - has a wingspan of nearly 25 feet (a little more than half the wingspan of the US Predator drone).
But that is almost twice the 14 feet that Iraq originally stated when it reported the drone to UN weapons inspectors on Jan. 15. Iraqi officials Wednesday blamed a "typing error" for the discrepancy, but said they, on their own volition, sent a letter to the UN on Feb. 18 as soon as they found the error.
UN inspectors note, however, that they first saw the drone at this site on Feb. 10, and measured its wingspan at the al Mutasim testing airfield on Feb. 17 - just one day before Iraq sent its letter. UN teams have visited the site five times, and filmed the drone.
"Very little of [the vehicle's] physical characteristics correspond with what was declared," says Hiro Ueki, spokesman for UN weapons inspectors in Baghdad. "The engines are different, so is the makeup of the body. The payload is different.... The whole issue of drones remains under investigation."
Key questions for the UN, Mr. Ueki says, are: "Can it fly beyond 150 kilometers [93 miles]? [Or] whether it can be equipped as is, or modified, to carry biological or chemical weapons. That is what we don't know."
There appeared to be little evidence Wednesday that this drone - which was reportedly dismantled shortly after its public appearance - had a range that approached UN limits. It had a bracket on the bottom that might conceivably carry a small payload, and a one-foot-square space near the nose meant for surveillance or guidance electronics.
Iraqi officials say the drone could not be used to disseminate chemical or biological warfare agents: "It has no [WMD] capability whatsoever," says General Hussein.
US officials say that UN weapons chief Hans Blix buried information about the drone - and Iraqi discrepancies - in a 173-page list of unresolved weapons that he presented to the Security Council March 6.
That report noted that such unmanned vehicles are of "particular interest" to UN inspectors "because of their potential to deliver a weapon to a remote target. Even though some ... are small and can carry a few tens of kilograms as payload, this could be significant if that payload is a BW [biological weapon] agent such as anthrax."
But UN sources say that while the use of this drone is not clear, its unlikely to qualify as a "smoking gun." The drone looks like a crude model of the US pilotless vehicles. Bicycle brake cables control the gas flow to the engines; the fuselage is formed from an old aircraft wingtip fuel tank.
A handful of gleaming, smaller drones were on display last November at the Baghdad International Trade Fair. But they could have been mock-ups.
A blue drone at the fair had a single propeller and an Iraqi flag painted on the tail. A bright pink one had a small glass aperture in the nose, with a low-resolution camera inserted.
Iraq describes the drone it displayed Wednesday, which it calls the "Jerusalem 10," or Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) 30A, as a one-of-a-kind prototype that can only operate within line of sight of a radio controller. It has flown two miles in tests, Iraqi officials say, and was designed for "reconnaissance, jamming, and aerial photography."
"If there was sufficient data to prove that they can carry chemical or biological weapons, and can fly beyond the range, then clearly [Blix] would have presented this as a major finding," says Ueki, the weapons spokesman.