Thursday, December 15, 2011

Can we have our drone back, please?

Earlier, Iran declared that it had brought down an American spy drone. The US first acknowledged that a drone sent over western Afghanistan was missing. Iranian television showed that the drone, confirmed by the US as a RQ-170 drone, a secret stealth drone. The drone shown on Iranian television appears to be intact. What’s more, China, among others have asked to examine the drone. While this situation is not good, what does it really mean?

First, it confirms that the US is spying on Iran. This will come as no shock to anyone, least of all the Iranians (though it might shock some of the Republican Presidential Candidates, who have called for covert action against Iran and seem to believe that there has been none). So it will show to the US public that the Obama administration has been engaging in at least some action against Iran. However, physical evidence of US espionage on Iran will serve as a uniting factor in Iran to bring citizens together against the US.

It also means, obviously that Iran holds highly classified US technology. The Iranians will now take apart and analyze the drone in order to attempt to build one of their own. However, assuming that they can build a copy, this will take time. It also means that what they can build is a copy or near copy of the US drone, the vulnerabilities of which the US presumably already knows. The problem with a system built on copying is that you are almost always behind and at most just caught up, never ahead.

The drone is also valuable to the Iranians as an asset in itself. It will probably make deals with China and maybe others to examine the drone in exchange for something else. However, one must question how likely it is that Iran, after achieving this major coup, will be to show highly classified US technology with others. Will they share everything, or will the only share part of the technology? It is not certain that the Iranians would share everything with the Chinese or others. Even if they do, the same applies. It will take a while for them to fully analyze and replicate it.

The US should focus on finding out how the Iranians brought down the drone, and how to improve the drones so that they do not happen again. If possible, covert action should be taken to destroy the drone. The US should be careful however to not take too drastic action. We should not give the Iranians reason to escalate actions.

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