This week we learned that a stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crashed 140 miles inside Iran with its wreckage recovered by Iranian security forces. Dubbed "the Beast of Kandahar" in 2009 after it appeared at a U.S. airbase there, the RQ-170 flew clandestine missions over Abbottabad, Pakistan, collecting intelligence prior to the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials considered a covert mission to either recover or destroy the wreckage before Iranian forces were able to reach the crash site, before concluding that the drone's technology likely didn't warrant the risk of another intrusion into Iran.
Rather than slow the march toward the future of drone warfare, this incident only supports the expanded development and deployment of smarter and more capable drones. That means that U.S. officials and commanders will have to live with more such losses of sensitive drone hardware to adversaries.
The lesson learned from this incident is not to hold back on drone employment but rather to build better drones and to accept the risks that come with their use. Stealthier drones will soon be able to provide continuous observation of suspected targets, gathering information that was not previously available to policymakers, thus reducing some of the guesswork from decision-making. Drones will be able to fly very long missions beyond the physiological endurance of human aircrews. In expansive theaters like the Asia-Pacific region, this capability will reduce U.S. dependence on forward bases currently vulnerable to missile attack. Long-range UAVs on aircraft carriers will allow the Navy to conduct strike operations from much longer ranges and with greater safety to its ships. Finally, long-endurance drones will provide isolated infantry patrols with continuous scouting and fire support.
Next-generation drone development seems to be ahead of schedule. The Navy's combat UAV demonstrator project recently took 16 flights rather than the anticipated 49 flights to reach initial flight test milestones. This rapid advance in robotic aircraft is in stark contrast to the delays experienced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, many caused by software problems in the F-35's manned cockpit. In explaining the Navy UAV's test success, the program manager, in a subtle dig at pilots, said, "we will not have to fly the platform as much as manned systems, which are less predictable."
Several other stories on the RQ-170 crash and the possible consequences....
FP: Iran Has America's Super Spy Drone. So What?
That one of many drones dedicated to collecting intelligence over Iran has fallen into Iranian hands is also expected given the law of averages. Drones crash at rates higher than manned aircraft for any number of reasons, including due to human error, incorrect information, network interference, system failure, weather, or being shot down. As a former official warned: "It was never a matter of whether we were going to lose one but when."US Air Force Times: Iran’s Captured RQ-170: How bad is the damage?
Aviation Week: Downed UAV Technology Already Dated (Dec 5th)