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How often do US military drones 'disappear'?

The US military acknowledged that one of its unmanned aerial vehicles had gone missing over western Afghanistan last week. With no pilot in the cockpit, drones can be tricky to fly.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 5, 2011

A Predator B unmanned aircraft taxis at the Naval Air Station in November, in Corpus Christi, Texas. A RQ-170 Sentinel drone went missing over Afghanistan last week.

Eric Gay/AP

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So just how often do US military drones "disappear"?

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The US military acknowledged Sunday that one of its unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV’s, had gone missing over western Afghanistan late last week.

“The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status,” a statement released by NATO forces in Afghanistan said Sunday.

The news caused an uproar when Iran claimed to have found the UAV – and that it is a highly-secretive RQ-170, the same drone reportedly used in the US Special Operations raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May. 

It is not often that the Pentagon loses track of its drones for any extended period of time, analysts say. In this particular case, it is possible that military officials know where the drone is, but would rather not acknowledge that it’s in Iranian hands.

This puts US military officials in a tricky position, as demonstrated when Pentagon officials sought Monday to assure reporters that – wherever it might be – the drone definitely was not shot down, as Iran claims. 

“The one thing I can tell you is we don’t have any indications that the UAV – that we no longer have – was brought down by hostile activity of any kind,” Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

That is not to say that it’s particularly difficult to shoot down the vast majority of drones in the Pentagon's arsenal. 

The US military first began using Predators in Europe in 1995, for example, but pulled them out after Serbian air defense gunners shot down two of them.

In 1999, at least 22 drones were felled by enemy fire or crashed due to mechanical failure over Kosovo.

At the end of 2002 – just before the US invasion of Iraq – Predators armed with Stinger missiles flew over Iraq’s no-fly zone in an effort to “bait” the Iraqi Air Force’s supersonic MiG-25 aircraft. 

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