Iran said it was forced to capture the drone after it "invaded" Iranian airspace

Is the U.S. in the midst of drone debacle 2.0?  Iran claims so.

I. Iran Say It's Captured Mid-Sized U.S. ScanEagle Drone

The hostile Middle Eastern superpower's police/military organization -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- claimed on its website on Dec. 4 to have "captured" a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that had been hovering around its air space for several days.

Iran claims that the UAV -- a relatively commonplace low-cost flier model called "ScanEagle", built by defense contractor The Boeing Comp. (BA) -- entered its airspace, at which point it was forced to capture it.

The nation's state-run IRIB news agency carried a message from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi who said he would use the captured flier as evidence at the UN of American violations of Iran's sovereign airspace.  He said he would file a formal complaint "via international bodies" against the U.S.

A U.S. soldier carries a ScanEagle to storage in the Middle East.
[Image Source: Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen]

Iran has not yet shown pictures of the allegedly captured flier.

II. U.S. and Israel Fight Silent War With Iran

Iran has been zealous in its accusations that the U.S. and its ally Israel have been carrying out a campaign to sabotage its nuclear and oil production facilities via assassinations, cyberattacks, and traditional espionage.  

The U.S. intelligence community has responded with allegations that Iran has funneled money and weapons into the Gaza Strip, using the impoverished locals as soldiers of fortune against Israel.  

Gaza Strip -- thank you Iran
Militants in the Gaza Strip recently put up billboards thanking Iran for its
"support" of their military. [Image Source: AP]

There have also been unconfirmed claims that recent cyberattacks on U.S. banks originated in Iran.

Both the U.S. and Israel also have accused Iran of plotting to develop nuclear weapons, despite Iran's insistence that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.  President George W. Bush, who initiated the preliminary cyberattacks (allegedly) against Iran's nuclear program, famously dubbed the Middle Eastern state as part of "the axis of evil".

Precisely a year, ago Iran captured a far more valuable target than a ScanEagle -- an RQ-170 Sentinel drone, flying on a surveillance mission for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Initially the U.S. expressed skepticism that the capture was real, but eventually they admitted that the drone was indeed captured and demanded its return.  Iran responded by sending U.S. President Barack Obama a pink toy replica of the captured flier.

III. Iran Has Filed Complaints to the UN

This October, Israel tracked a drone launched by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, which invaded its airspace.  The Israel Defense Force (IDF) promptly shot down the flier, which they say showed telltale signs of being manufactured in Iran.

This November Iran and the U.S. filed complaints against each other before international regulators.  The U.S. claimed its UAV was flying in international airspace when it was fired on by Iranian warplanes.  The Iranians claimed instead that the drone had violated Iran's sovereign airspace.  It was unclear if that drone was destroyed in the incident, but Iran promised "decisive" action against future intrusions.

UN Assembly
Iran has complained to the UN about alleged U.S. violations of its sovereign airspace.
[Image Source: The Pew Institute]

In his letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee called the alleged U.S. airspace violations "illegal and provocative acts".  In the letter he claims that Iran has recorded seven different airspace violations in the Bushehr region near its nuclear plant.

IV. U.S. Navy Commander Denies Story About Captured Drone

U.S. Naval Forces Central Command has denied the latest Iranian claim of a drone capture, saying that all its drones are accounted for.  In a statement to Reuters, Commander Jason Salata comments, "The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air vehicles (UAV) operating in the Middle East region. Our operations in the Gulf are confined to internationally recognized water and air space."

The U.S. Marine Corps also makes use of ScanEagles, so it's possible that the Navy could be unaware of the loss if it was from the Marines, a semi-autonomous sub-branch.

ScanEagles are largely used to safeguard oil platforms against attack by pirates or terrorists in the Middle East.  The 4-ft (1.25 meter) fliers are made from off-the-shelf components and aren't exactly top secret.  They can be launched by catapaults mounted to vehicles or small ships.  The catapults can also be positioned as a tripod-like ground-based launcher.

A catapault launch of a SkyEagle [Image Source: AFP/USMC]

Once in flight the drone flies on pre-programmed routes taking pictures and video, aided by onboard global position system (GPS) circuits.  When returning to base the drone is snagged with a "Skyhook" system in which the drone catches a rope hanging from a 50-ft (16-meter) high pole.

If Iran did "capture" the drone (which the U.S. currently denies) it may have done it by broadcasting fake GPS signals to the flier.  That's allegedly how the Iranians "hacked" the RQ-170 flier to land in a specially designated capture site.

The incident comes at a time when Israel is putting pressure on the U.S. to respond with harsher sanctions and more decisive efforts to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions.  Israel has threatened to launch missile or bomber attacks against Iran's nuclear sites if the U.S. fails to satisfactorily halt the development.  Iran has promised it would respond to any such assault.

Source: Reuters

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