Drone ‘beast’ captured in Iran – others rampage in Afghanistan and Gaza

RQ-170 Sentinel drone

There has been intense media coverage of the downing of a US drone in Iran over the past week.  Iran has previously claimed that it has shot down ‘Western drones’ (as we reported here) but they have never provided proof despite saying they would.

Initially the US denied any of their drone had been downed and then said that the drone may have been one lost in Afghanistan previously.  Within days  however the CIA was saying – through the usual ‘unnamed sources’ – that it was one of their drones that had crashed inside Iran.

The drone concerned is a RQ-170 Sentinel.  It was dubbed the ‘Beast of Kandahar’ when the then unknown drone was first spotted by the press in 2007 and 2009. It’s existence was officially confirmed – and its name officially revealed –  in late 2009. However little detail about the drone has been revealed.  All that is known about the drone is that it is stealthy, jet powered and unarmed.

The Beast - tamed

On December 8, Iranian TV showed  video footage of the drone and claimed that they had electronically hijacked it and brought it down.  This seems improbable and its far more likely the drone simply crash landed.  The fact that bottom of the drone was covered and it appeared to have no landing gear also points towards a crash.  When contact with a drone is lost, the drone is programmed to go into a holding pattern until contact is recovered.  Perhaps the drone did this until it simply ran out of fuel. However the drone, which flies at a high altitude, would have been much more damaged if it had crashed in this manner so many questions remain. Some have questioned whether the drone displayed by Iran was in fact a fake.

In a protest letter about the incursion of the drone on to it territory, Iran has called on the United Nations to condemn the  “violation of international rules by the U.S. government.”

Meanwhile other drone ‘beasts’ continue to rampage.  There has been two days of violence in Gaza following an Israeli drone strike.  According to the Irish Times “Gaza residents said a 42-year-old civilian was killed in an Israeli air strike on Hamas training facility. Seven members of the man’s family were wounded, including his father, wife and five of his children.”

And no doubt, US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan continue completely unreported.  Time these drone ‘beasts’ were caged too.

New Year deaths as US forces addicted to ‘crack-like’ Drones

2011 started where 2010 left off with continued drone attacks in Pakistan.  On 27/28th December 42 people were killed in drone strikes while 19 people were killed in three separate drone attacks in North Waziristan on New Year’s Day  and between 4 and 6 people were killed in an attack on a vehicle near the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan.   Most reports labelled all those killed as ‘militants’ but as Jason Ditz of antiwar.com says

“Officials term everyone killed a “suspected militant” but concede that they don’t know any of the identities of the slain and that civilians are almost certain to be amongst the toll. With virtually no media allowed into the region, identifying the victims of US attacks is virtually impossible.” 

The New Year also began with a lot of coverage of Gorgon Stare  – despite missing its ‘end-of-2010’  deployment deadline – mainly thanks to a large article in the Washington Post.   As we have previously reported Gorgon Stare  is a new surveillance capability that allows a wide area of ground to be videoed  while also enabling individuals to be tracked within that wide area. 

The amount of video from drone surveillance is already  overwhelming analysts yet the military continues to demands more.  The Post article quotes Army Col. Steven A. Beckman, former intelligence chief for coalition forces in Sothern Afghanistan as calling drone video coverage “the crack cocaine of our ground forces.”

Flight international reports that one Gorgon Stare ‘pod’ will be deployed in Afghanistan before April 2011, one in 2012 and one in 2014.

Finally a new year curiosity was the reported shooting down of two ‘western spy drones’ by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.  Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the air force wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards made the claim but gave no further details and there were  quick denials from the US that any of its drones had been shot down.

USAF/CIA argue over the ‘honour’ of drone wars as Iran unveils drone

Iran has unveiled a new long-range drone  named Karrar which has a range of 1,000km and could carry two 250-pound bombs or a precision bomb of 500 pounds. According to the BBC, President Ahmadinejad said that the new drone was a “messenger of honour and human generosity and a saviour of mankind, before being a messenger of death for enemies of mankind.”

On Saturday a drone attack killed between six and ten people  in Pakistan in the CIA’s show of ‘honour’ while Israel flew jets and drones over Lebanon in its own show of ‘human generosity’.

Amidst all this, the house newspaper of the USAF, the Air Force Times, carried a strong piece arguing that the air force should have the ‘honour’ of running the drone war in Pakistan rather than the CIA.  Its worth quoting a large section:

History, American tradition, and U.S. and international law all say that military operations should be carried out by the armed forces. If bad guys like al-Jufi are not legitimate military targets, we shouldn’t attack them. It’s not the business of an intelligence agency or, worse, of a private contractor working for an intelligence agency — to kill people. A 1976 executive order by President Ford bans American intelligence agencies from engaging in assassination.

If they are legitimate military targets, military people should wage the campaign against them. Since we’re talking remotely piloted aircraft, the branch of the military that should handle this is the Air Force.

“It’s not a good idea for the CIA to have a direct part in armed hostilities,” said Gary Solis in a telephone interview. Solis is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and judge advocate. “It’s contrary to the law of armed conflict. Flying and arming drones and inputting intelligence for their mission should be performed by the military.”

Iran, Israel and Drones

There has been a lot of drone-related activity in the middle east at the moment – mainly involving Iran and Israel.    Two weeks after it happened, it was reported on Aug. 16th that the ‘father’ of Iran’s UAV programme, Reza Baruni, has been killed in an explosion at his home.  Debkafile reports that officially he was killed when a gas canister exploded whilst ‘intelligence sources’ report that he was assassinated.   

Meanwhile Iran also announced that it will unveil two new drone on August 22nd.    The two hi-tech drones named ‘Ra’d’ (Thunder) and ‘Nazir’ (Harbinger) are capable of conducting long-range reconnaissance, patrolling, assault and bombing missions with high precision and are the first drones to roll off Iran’s new UAV production line set up in February.

There has been much speculation that the news about the new drones is linked to the announcement that Iran is due to start its nuclear power station at Bushehr on Aug 21st with fuel delivered from Russia (this has been approved by IAEA) not least because US neo-con John Bolton has urged Israel to attack the nuclear site:

“Once that uranium, once those fuel rods are very close to the reactor, certainly once they’re in the reactor, attacking it means a release of radiation, no question about it,” Bolton told Fox Business Network. “So if Israel is going to do anything against Bushehr it has to move in the next eight days.”

Meanwhile Israel is expecting a ‘boom time’ for its UAV’s according to a report in Aviation Week.  The head of Elbit, Joseph Ackerman, is quoted as saying he wants to sell drones like a ‘Sears and Roebuck’ type operation. 

“Our strategy is to build a range of UAVs up to 1.1 tons with the communications, sensors and intelligence payloads that let them do all the necessary missions at long distances,” say Ackerman.

However the rift between Israel and Turkey following the murder of Turkish activists on the Gaza means that Turkey may not get its US made Reaper drones.  The US is putting pressure on Turkey to soften its stance against Israel  – and as a punishment for voting against UN sanctions on Iran – otherwise it will not provide the drone which Turkey wants to use against the PKK.