Micah Zenko

Iran Has America’s Super Spy Drone. So What?

Getting caught every once in a while is all part of the intelligence game.


On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 surveillance plane was downed by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile over the Sverdlovsk area of the Soviet Union. The U-2’s mission — code-named Operation Grand Slam — was to photograph Soviet ballistic missile sites to inform the missile-gap debate raging in Washington. Though Grand Slam was the 24th deep-penetration flight over Soviet territory in four years, and CIA analysts warned of improvements in Soviet air-defense radars and missiles, the risks were deemed worth taking. As Secretary of State Christian Herter had noted in a plea to President Dwight Eisenhower to resume the U-2 flights: "The intelligence objective outweighs the danger of getting trapped."

Is history repeating itself? On Thursday, Iranian state television showed two men in military uniforms running their hands across the swept-wing frame of what the broadcast claimed was an RQ-170 Sentinel drone. An unnamed U.S. official said with "high confidence" that the drone displayed was the Sentinel that had gone missing 140 miles inside of Iran. (Only days earlier, a senior official had claimed: "The Iranians have a pile of rubble and are trying to figure what they have.") Several officials have acknowledged that the drone was under CIA control on an intelligence collection mission inside Iran.

It is understandable that an event with headlines that include the words "Iran," "drone," and "nuclear" generate a great deal of attention. Yet, for all the bytes and ink expended in discussing the downed Sentinel drone, it is neither surprising nor particularly revealing. As was true in 1960, the benefits of spying on Iran outweigh the dangers of the program being revealed or a downed aircraft, and are what Americans should expect from the $55 billion spent last year on national intelligence. To understand why this downed drone is such an ordinary event requires an understanding the day-to-day process of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Here’s how it works. Senior policymakers provide tasking guidance to the IC through the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which is the "sole mechanism for establishing national intelligence priorities," according to an Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence (ODNI) directive. The NIPF process is coordinated by the ODNI, and results in a matrix listing the intelligence priorities of policymakers based on topics covered at National Security Council meetings and discussions with cabinet officials. The NIPF is updated every six months and signed by the president. As was described to me recently, the matrix consists of some 30 issues of concern for collection ranked in horizontal bands, running from A (most important) to C (least important), with some 180 state and non-state groups listed on the vertical axis. Finally, the matrix is color-coded based on the degree of current priority. After the ranking, the matrix is then translated into specific guidance from the DNI to senior IC managers for allocating collection and analytical resources.

Though the NIPF is highly classified, it is likely that there is no higher priority intelligence target than Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic-missile sites, and air-defense system. Given that the Sentinel was reportedly on a CIA mission, there is certainly a presidential memoranda of notification (or several) that broadly authorizes the covert collection efforts in Iran. Moreover, assuredly the Senate and House intelligence committees have been briefed often and thoroughly about the CIA’s use of the Sentinel over Iran.

Since Iran is among the most important intelligence collection priority, it would only make sense for the United States to utilize its most advanced capabilities, just as the U-2 spy plane was a half-century ago. The United States has reportedly been flying drones of various capabilities and missions over Iran since as early as April 2004, some of which Iranians believed to be UFOs. The following year, Iran protested the drone flights to the United States through Swiss diplomatic channels, and via letters to the U.N. Security Council, demanding "an end to such unlawful acts." The RQ-170 Sentinel drone itself, pictures of which were first published in 2007, had flown from Afghan airbases over Iran "for years," according to the Associated Press. (Of course, Iran also flies surveillance drones against U.S. military assets, as demonstrated in this grainy video of the USS Ronald Reagan.)

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."

With an array of advanced sensors and unmatched speed and loiter time, the RQ-170s flying above Iran probably had four collection priorities: 1) The location and activities of all known and suspected nuclear sites, including air sensors to retrieve remote traces of tell-tale signs of nuclear activities, such as krypton-85; 2) The location and activities of ballistic-missile production facilities and test ranges; 3) The location of training camps for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah; 4) The location and technical characteristics of Iran’s integrated air-defense system, including the transmitting power and spatial coverage of radars and performance characteristics of surface-to-air missiles. Any information was obtained was assuredly corroborated by multiple other intelligence collection platforms.

While intelligence collection in Iran will undoubtedly suffer somewhat, the primary concern regarding the crash is the prospect of Iran providing the Sentinel to other foreign governments. Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency reported "that Russian and Chinese officials have asked for permission to inspect the U.S. spy drone." This prospect is likely given historical precedent: In 1998, Chinese officials reportedly visited Khost, Afghanistan, to purchase intact Tomahawk cruise missiles that failed to explode in an U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden’s hideout. The following year, Chinese intelligence agents reportedly bought the wreckage from a downed U.S. stealth F-117 Nighthawk, some of which might have been reverse-engineered for China’s J-20 stealth fighter.

When the ill-fated U-2 was lost over the Soviet Union, its superior replacement, the A-12 OXCART, was already well under development at the ultra-secret Skunk Works facilities — so the U-2 was no huge loss. Similarly, the Sentinel’s downing will only be a temporary setback. As Aviation Week reported, the Sentinel’s sensor package considered "so invaluable when it debuted in Afghanistan about two years ago is considered outdated." The hyper-spectral sensor capabilities mounted on future stealth drones will make the RQ-170 Sentinel seem quaint. When those future drones also unfortunately fall onto the territory of Iran or other adversaries, people will be surprised and unnecessarily alarmed then, too.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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