How bad is it that Iran has captured an RQ-170 spy drone? It's a harder question than you might think, dependent on several other questions:
- Did the Iranians bring the drone down? The US government says the drone malfunctioned, but the Iran government claims they brought it down with jamming equipment. Let's hope the Iranians are lying; if they have the electronic capability to bring this bird down, they can presumably cause problems for a wide range of weapons and communications systems.
- Can the Iranians reverse-engineer the drone? They say that they can and will, but some experts say that that's harder than you might think (though the Iranians will likely have Russian and Chinese help with this).
- Is the data in the drone recoverable? Experts say that the real intelligence value of capturing the drone would lie in the sensor or sensors and the software aboard. Tehran claims that they are extracting data from the drone, but it's quite possible that the data was either erased before the Iranians got to it, or is so well-encrypted that recovering it would be beyond their or their allies' capabilities.
- Why didn't Obama order the drone destroyed or recovered before the Iranians got their hands on it? We know the Pentagon gave him several options for doing so (e.g. bombing it from the air or sending in a special forces team). The President decided against it. If he knew for sure that the less-scary answers to the previous two questions were correct, that's one thing -- but if the Iranians really can glean a damaging amount of intel from this find, and Obama was simply gun-shy about risking a confrontation by taking the necessary steps to prevent that, well, that's unfortunate.
One thing we do know: When, at a press conference today, Obama said of the drone, "We have asked for it back. We will see how the Iranians respond," he sounded ridiculous, and probably gave the the Revolutionary Guards a good laugh.
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