In a scoop today, Scott Peterson and an Iranian reporter who asked not be identified report that the US spy drone that Iran displayed on television last week may have been hacked into by Iranian electronic warfare specialists and brought to a controlled landing on an Iranian military base in Kashmar.
Their source is an Iranian engineer who says he's working to unlock the secrets of the RQ-170 Sentinel Drone – a $6 million unmanned aerial vehicle that looks like a baby version of the stealth bomber – particularly the electronic eavesdropping and control mechanisms of the bird. While the US has remained silent so far on the account, if it holds up, it will be be more reason to ignore the American politicians and ideologues who are seeking to make political gains from the loss of the drone.
The drone, flying out of a US base in Afghanistan, went dark to its US operators as it flew over Iran, seeking to spy on the country's nuclear program. The loss of the drone – whatever the cause – has caused the usual array of posturing and heavy breathing.
This week Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney suggested that Obama's decision to not "destroy it or go get it" was "an enormous mistake" and "incomprehensible." The "go get it" bit of his comment seems to imply a limited invasion of Iran of some sort.
He was far from the only one to try to score political points over what was an air mishap involving a $6 million drone. Fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum implied the US should have sent troops to retrieve the drone in the last Republican debate. Former Vice President Dick Cheney also said the US should have bombed the site where the drone went down. The consideration that even limited bombing of Iran – given US efforts to rally tougher international sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program, particularly from the reluctant Russians and Chinese – might be counterproductive to US interests seems to have hardly crossed any of the critics' minds.
Uber-hawk Max Boot, a pundit who supported the Iraq war and generally tilts towards armed confrontation with Iran, mocked Obama's request that Iran return the plane. "I am pretty sure... that the president’s request the Iranians return the drone was dopey and humiliating," Boot writes.
Well, one man's "dopey and humiliating" is another man's "what could it hurt?" A simple request does little damage. Other options aren't as safe.
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.
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.