Saturday, December 10, 2011

U-2 over Russia, Drone over Iran

In May of 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized a secret reconnaissance flight to investigate Soviet nuclear missile capability. Francis Gary Powers, a pilot for the Central Intelligence Agency's U-2 spyplane program, was assigned to survey Soviet missile test sites, particularly an ICBM testing range at Tyuratam (in present-day Kazakhstan). The flight was to begin in Peshewar, with Powers flying northeast over Russia until he landed in Norway. All went well until Powers suffered an engine flameout over the Soviet city of Sverdelovsk, and he was forced to descend. This put him in range of a new Soviet SAM which was able to shoot down his craft. Powers ejected, but was not able to set off the self-destruct charges, leaving the U-2 intact for the Soviets to inspect.

At this point you're probably wondering what in the name of DoD this has to do with national security? Well, unless you're in an underground facility in the Persian desert secretly enriching uranium, you've probably heard that the U.S. supposedly "lost" a drone over Iran. The Iranian government claims it has salvaged the drone and has placed what looks like a drone on display, complete with painted on anti-American slogans and propaganda. What ties this and the U-2 incident together is that they are both examples of cutting edge reconaissance technology falling into the hands of a major adversary, and even with the mission for the same purpose. The design of the "captured" drone is said to contain advanced stealth technology, which made it useful for various operations, including the raid against bin Laden's compound. Like with the Soviets, the "capture" of this drone is a blow to our national security because not only is one of our "covert operations" exposed, but the Iranians will most likely attempt to reverse engineer the technology and/or distribute it to our regional rivals (Russia, China, etc). Both missions were also meant to search for nuclear weapons activity. In fact, the only real difference between these situations is the fact that the United States hasn't been caught in an embarrasing lie regarding the downed aircraft. In Powers' case, the United States had said the flight was related to a malfunctioning weather balloon, but the Soviets showed they had captured Powers and embarrassed America on the national stage. In the drone incident, by contrast, we are just denying that the crash ever happened. While still embarrasing, it might not cause such a blow to credibility.

Regardless, this drone "crash" will most likely hurt our "capability" regarding intelligence gathering in the future, particularly considering the fact that we're already facing criticism for our "drone campaign" in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fact that it has expanded to Iran will only turn the Middle East against us further because of our use of drones. While still a useful tool, we may face further blowback for their use in the future.

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