When CIA Drones Go Missing

Tehran now has in its hands one of America's most technologically advanced spy drones. But if that's true, how advanced was the thing, really?

RQ-170 Sentinel

RQ-170 Sentinel

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in Washington after that super-secret American spy drone fell into Iranian hands last week. Tehran claims it shot down the UAV, which analysts have identified as an RQ-170 Sentinel. The White House has asked for it back. The Iranian government has responded with the diplomatic equivalent of, “In your dreams.”

Known as the “Beast of Kandahar,” the Sentinel is built by Lockheed Martin and operated by the U.S. Air Force for the Central Intelligence Agency. While the Air Force has released few details on the UAV's design or capabilities, defense analysts say it is a stealth aircraft fitted with reconnaissance equipment.

The nearly intact drone was displayed on Iranian state TV and flaunted as a victory for Iran in an escalating intelligence and technological battle with the U.S. The Pentagon says the unmanned aircraft malfunctioned and was not brought down by Iran. President Obama said on Monday that the U.S. wants the top-secret aircraft back and has delivered a formal request for the return of the surveillance craft. He declined to say where the drone was operating when it went down, though we don't really need to guess.

Iran’s defense minister deflected the U.S. request for the return of the drone and instead demanded an apology from Washington. That prompted a suggestion from former vice president Dick Cheney on CNN that we shouldn’t be asking nicely for our spyplane, we should be launching Tomahawk missiles to blow the thing to smithereens.

The whole episode, for me, conjures football-inspired analogies. Cheney’s suggestion is like that of a football coach who, after his star quarterback throws a costly an interception in the end zone, tells his players to go punch the defender in the face. Following this thread of logic, Obama’s kid-glove appeal is akin to the football coach asking politely to have the ball back so his quarterback can try again.

How about, instead, the U.S. focuses on watching the game tape and figuring out why the quarterback (in this case, Lockheed, the Air Force and the CIA) threw an interception in the first place. This isn’t the first time a spy drone has gone wandering off. Maybe the designers need to build in better fail-safes and backup systems. Otherwise, these kinds of intelligence gaffes will only continue making headlines. Before they get serious about allowing these things to mix in civil airspace, they need to do much better job of keeping them on a leash.

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