After establishing the cause of the crash of the unmanned American spy drone, the stealth RQ-170, over Iran on Dec. 4, 2011, the US is continuing to use that type of UAV, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said on Jan. 13. Without disclosing the results of the investigation, he said, ”The key thing is that it’s an ISR system that we use to provide capabilities to the combatant commanders and we’ll continue to do so.”
US officials reject Iran’s claim that it brought down the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel but remain tight-lipped about what caused the crash.
Both American sources, while insisting that the RQ-170 was still in commission, never said it was again flying over Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources offer three disclosures to explain the publicity strategy pursued by US officials:
The Americans know Iran did not bring the RQ-170 down because their intelligence agencies discovered the culprits were a Chinese cyber warfare team which seized control of the drone; Iran was given the passive role of being told where and when to hold out their arms to catch it.
The Obama administration is keeping this information to itself so as not to compromise US economic relations with China, especially in a presidential election year.
- Republican contenders would seize on this information as valuable campaign ammunition against President Barack Obama. They already accuse him of being soft on North Korea and he cannot afford to have US inaction against China added to their campaign fodder.
American needs to keep China on its side
- The US is casting about for levers to bring Beijing aboard the oil embargo on Iran. Wednesday, Feb. 1, German ChancellorAngela Merkel traveled to China at Obama’s request to try her hand at persuading Beijing to at least reduce its crude purchases from Tehran, if not join the embargo. Getting into a row with China over the stealth drone would not help persuade its leaders to cooperate in sanctions against Iran but might risk bringing US-Chinese relations to an unprecedented low.
Washington needs Beijing’s cooperation in the global financial crisis and even more, to shore up the dollar’s value as an international currency. China holds a large part of its reserves in US government bonds and dollars. A diplomatic falling-out between Washington and Beijing might well spur the Chinese to turn away from the dollar, as Moscow, Tehran and New Delhi are in the process of doing. They have indicated their willingness to take this course on past occasions.
US intelligence has not discovered whether the Chinese cyber warfare team is still in Iran or has gone, leaving behind instructors and high-tech equipment for Tehran to counter US drones and planes on its own. Another RQ-170 flight over Iran might provide some answers, but President Obama is flatly against this. If Iran – and China – were to get hold of a second advanced American UAV, he would have no option but to hit back at the Islamic Republic – or even at Chinese targets in Iran.
US aerial reconnaissance over Iran abandoned
The result of this standoff and its complications is that the United States has no aerial vehicles on surveillance missions over the Iranian interior, excepting only spy satellites.
The US Navy’s customized RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs (BRAMS-Broad Area Maritime Surveillance), after two years of tests, now monitors sea traffic off the Iranian coast and the Strait of Hormuz, circling at 22,500 meters (70,000 feet) over a Persian Gulf carrier task force.
Anything suspicious is checked out by the carrier, land-based aircraft, or warships in the vicinity. The BAMS craft fly 24-hour sorties every three days, but do not venture deep into Iranian airspace.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that Israel, which received sensitive intelligence input on Iran from US drones, is now stuck for a comparable source, just when it is gearing up for a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Soon after RQ-170 flights were stopped over Iran, Israel began adapting the Heron TP, its largest drone which was designated for strike sorties against Iran, for surveillance missions over that country. On Dec. 29, the Heron crashed near the Tel Nof Air Force base south of Tel Aviv on a test flight conducted jointly by Israel Aerospace Industries and the Israeli Air Force. IAF commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan said the Heron had been testing new technology. He didn’t elaborate.
But our military sources disclose that it was experimenting with a new gadget installed in its left wing for evading Chinese or Iranian cyber attacks like the one that downed the American RQ-170.
For now, Israel has halted those tests.