Iran's Drones

Science, technology, and life.
March 17 2009 10:50 AM

Iran's Drones

What's more unsettling than U.S. military planes flying over Iraq with nobody inside them ?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Iranian military planes doing the same thing.


Last Thursday, Danger Room reported that according to its sources, American planes had shot down an Iranian drone in Iraqi airspace. Yesterday, the United States  confirmed it. We and our friends are no longer the only nations flying remote-controlled vehicles over other countries. Instead of looking down on the enemy through the eyes of unmanned aircraft, our military personnel will increasingly find themselves on the wrong end of the camera—and eventually the missile.

The United States claims that the Iranian drone shot down on Feb. 25 spent more than an hour in Iraqi airspace and was "well inside Iraqi territory." Depending on whom you believe, it was 10 , 12 , 25 , or 80 miles inside Iraq. One theory is that the drone was spying on a camp full of Iranian dissidents (or, to put it less nicely, terrorists ). Another is that it was looking for routes to smuggle weapons into Iraq. It was unarmed and relatively unsophisticated, with a range of 90 miles (which means it almost certainly didn't go 80 miles into Iraq) and an altitude limit of 14,000 feet.

The incident raises at least three questions. First: How many other drones does Iran have, and what can they do? According to Danger Room :

In 2007, Iran said it built a drone with a range of 420 miles . In February, Iran's deputy defense minister claimed its latest UAV could now fly as far as 600 miles . ... Iran often exaggerates what its weapons can do. But, if this drone really can stay in the air for for that long, the Washington Times notes, "it could soar over every U.S. military installation , diplomatic mission or country of interest in the Middle East."

Today's Los Angeles Times adds :

Iran has been developing unmanned aviation technologies, displaying drone aircraft during military parades and incorporating them into war games along its eastern and western borders in recent years. In December, Iran said it had developed a new generation of "spy drones" that provide real-time surveillance over enemy terrain. And last month an Iranian air force officer told media Iran had created drones with a range of 1,200 miles.

The distance from Iran to Tel Aviv is about 600 miles.

Second: Who else has drones? We know, for example, that Israel , Georgia , and Pakistan have them. Iran's ability to produce them means that Iranian-affiliated miscreants will be deploying them, too. Danger Room notes :

Iran has supplied Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group, with both models [its Ababil and Misrad drones]. Misrad drones flew reconnaissance missions in both November 2004 and April 2005. Then, in 2006, during Hezbollah's war with Israel, the group operated both Misrads and Ababils over Israel's skies . At least one was shot down by Israeli fighter jets .

Third: How will the proliferation of drones affect future wars? The emerging ability of our adversaries to do to us what we've been doing to them—invade, spy, and eventually kill without risking any personnel—is a huge problem. The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since President Obama took office is now up to six , with a casualty count exceeding 100 . Imagine somebody doing that to us.

On the other hand, nobody died in the Feb. 25 incident. According to the U.S. military, before firing, our forces confirmed that " no collateral damage would result from a shoot-down ." In fact, we knew more than that. We knew we wouldn't be killing any military personnel, either, since the drone's pilot was in Iran. That made it easier to shoot down the drone without triggering a political confrontation and blowing up diplomatic efforts with Iran. It's been three weeks since the incident, and Iran still hasn't mentioned it in public. If tomorrow's spy aircraft can be shot down without spilling blood and starting wars, that's not such a bad thing.


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