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Obama taking heat for asking for US drone back? Pay little heed.

The loss of a stealth drone that was spying on Iran isn't the disaster some make it out to be. And if you think Obama's request for it back was awkward, remember what JFK did after we lost a spy plane.

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While bombing would be safer than a ground mission (anyone remember Jimmy Carter's attempted helicopter rescue mission for the hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1980?) – it would represent a dramatic escalation of an already dangerous and tense situation with Iran, a country that borders both Iraq and Afghanistan, and has the means through local proxies to strike out at US personnel in both locations.

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If the Iranian engineer's story is truthful, it turns out that the drone wasn't missing on some barren steppe or hillside, but instead was landed inside an Iranian military base. A tough nut for a long-range helicopter assault, I'd submit. An easy target for bombs or missiles? Sure. But there might be consequences to killing a bunch of Iranian soldiers on their own soil. 

At any rate, the macho calls for action miss the whole point of using unmanned drones in the first place: When they crash or are otherwise lost, as is ultimately inevitable with any machine, you've lost a cheaper asset than a larger plane that can support human pilots – and you also haven't lost the human pilot. Sure, you've lost something of value and perhaps some technical secrets. But the next generation of technology is already in development. And you haven't lost a man – or worse, had him taken alive. 

Consider the case of Francis Gary Powers. In 1960, he and his high-flying U-2 spy plane took off from Peshawar, Pakistan (those were happier days in the US-Pakistan relationship), with a mission to overfly and spy on a number of Soviet nuclear weapons sites before landing in distant Norway. He was brought down by surface-to-air missiles shortly after entering Soviet airspace, but parachuted to safety and was quickly captured. When the story broke, the Eisenhower administration lied about the mission, saying the pilot was conducting atmospheric research and may have accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace.

But Nikita Khrushchev played the incident for all the propaganda it was worth (just as the Iranians are, but Khrushchev had a living American spy). A show trial was eventually held in Moscow, and Powers was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years hard labor. Meanwhile, furious behind-the-scenes negotiations went on to secure Powers' return. President John F. Kennedy inherited the situation, and the CIA eventually negotiated Power's return home in exchange for convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

What has the US lost with this one drone? If the Iranians really exploited a flaw in US encryption, that's a problem that will need to be dealt with. But an intelligence catastrophe? Highly unlikely. The spies and soldiers that use these drones know that a crash or loss of a plane – any plane – is inevitable over enough missions and time. If the costs of a loss were outweighed by the benefits of intelligence gleaned, they wouldn't use them.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

IN PICTURES: Drones: America's unmanned Predators

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