US considered missions to destroy RQ-170 Sentinel drone lost in Iran

The RQ-170 Sentinel drone lost over Iran is one of America's most valuable intelligence assets. It's unclear what brought it down - hostile fire or malfunction. Iran claims to have shot it down but has provided no photographs.

By , Staff writer

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    A US Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. A RQ-170 stealth drone recently was lost over Iran. Iran claims to have shot it down. US officials deny that.
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So valuable is the CIA-operated drone aircraft down in Iran that US officials considered launching an airstrike to destroy the advanced unmanned spy aircraft or sending in a special operations team to blow up or perhaps retrieve the super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel drone.

As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, the US idea was to deny Iran any information about the RQ-170 drone, information that could have been valuable to other US adversaries as well.

But in the end, trying to destroy or retrieve the RQ-170 inside Iran was ruled out.

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"No one warmed up to the option of recovering it or destroying it because of the potential it could become a larger incident," a US official told The Wall Street Journal. An assault team entering the country "could be accused of an act of war" by the Iranian government, the official said.

In the days since Iran claimed to have shot down the RQ-170, little new information has been revealed about its design, capabilities, or mission.

What’s known is that it is wing-shaped and that it is constructed of and coated with special materials to give it stealth capabilities to avoid enemy radar. Unlike other drones used in potentially hostile situations, it is not armed. Its full-motion video sensors allow it to track adversaries in real time, sending signals back to the military or intelligence officers controlling its mission. That feature was a key to the success of the Navy Seal Team that located and killed Osama bin Laden.

Defense analysts cite its ability to spy on Iran’s growing nuclear capability.

“Persistent surveillance would be useful in understanding the best time of day to attack Iranian [weapons of mass destruction] facilities,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

But satellites with a resolution down to 10 centimeters can do much of that as well, says national security expert Loren Thompson, with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., so the RQ-170’s main value likely has been in tracking insurgent encampments and movements across the border from Afghanistan.

Its stealth design allows it to operate in potentially hostile areas, avoiding air defense systems. That may include Syria, Dr. Thompson speculates. Other reports say the RQ-170 has been useful in gaining information about Hezbollah terrorist training camps inside Iran.

One key question now is why the drone went down over Iran.

As Thompson notes, the RQ-170 has an automatic “return to base” feature in case it loses its data link with military or CIA drone operators in Afghanistan or the United States. Because that “carrier pigeon” capability did not kick in, it’s likely that the drone experienced a software or mechanical failure.

“The big unanswered question is, what precisely do the Iranians have?” says Thompson.

“If all they have is a pile of wreckage, it’s pretty useless,” he says, noting that the drone’s software is highly encrypted.

Pentagon and CIA officials have had little to say about the incident other than acknowledging that operators had lost control of a US drone. Privately, officials deny that Iran brought down the RQ-170, either by shooting it down or hacking its control software. More likely, they say, the drone simply lost its link to ground controllers, ran out of fuel, and crashed.

In any case, reports Aviation Week, “the single-channel, full-motion video capability that made the stealthy flying wing so invaluable when it debuted in Afghanistan about two years ago is considered outdated, potentially limiting the intelligence fallout.”

US officials told the Associated Press that the RQ-170 drone that crashed inside Iran over the weekend was one of a fleet of stealth aircraft that have spied on Iran for years from a US air base in Afghanistan.

According to these officials, the US has built up the air base in Shindad, Afghanistan, with an eye to keeping a long-term presence there to launch surveillance missions and even special operations missions into Iran if deemed necessary, the AP reports.

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