By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Iran’s Zahedan airport is located on a road named for Allama Iqbal (also known as Sir Muhammad Iqbal), the great Indian philosopher whom Pakistan adopted after partition as its national poet. The shaheen, or eagle, features prominently in Iqbal’s poetry, as a symbol of vigour, dignity and daring. It is contrasted against the figure of the kargas, or vulture, which represents cunning, cowardice and ignobility. It is the latter appellation that the region frequently applies to the CIA drones which today dot the skies from Waziristan, Kandahar to Zahedan. But shaheen or kargas, they are both ferocious; and it is considered a feat to capture either. Small wonder then, that some in Iran see cause for celebration in the capture of CIA’s RQ-170 sentinel drone, a stealth surveillance craft manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
This is not the first time the CIA has delivered one of its most advanced aircraft for inevitable reverse engineering to its putative enemy. On April 9, 1960, people at the Zahedan airport watched anxiously as an aircraft with unusually wide wings approached from the north-east. The Lockheed U-2C was on a top-secret spying mission for the CIA, but its target was not Iran. Indeed, it was coming in to land after being chased by several fighter planes. Over the previous 8 hours, the plane had photographed four strategic Soviet military sites from an altitude of 70,000 feet, well out of the reach of the Russian MiGs and Sukhois. It embarked on its mission from the Badaber air force base 10 miles to the south of Peshawar.
Three weeks later, on May 1, 1960, another aircraft lifted off from Badaber. It was the U-2’s 23rd mission behind the Iron Curtain, an ambitious mission deep into the heart of the Soviet Union. Flying well over the reach of Soviet fighters, the CIA figured the U-2 could proceed with impunity. But where MiGs feared to tread, a SAM rushed in; a Russian SA-2 surface-to-air missile exploding near the high-flying jet sheered off one of its giant wings and its pilot, Gary Francis Powers, bailed out in time to provide the Soviets with living proof of the intrusion. The incident soon turned into an international scandal, putting an end to the ongoing Four Powers Paris Summit; it also soured relations with Pakistan where few had known about the nature of a mission which now left them vulnerable to the possibility of Soviet retaliation.
But another consequence of the U-2 incident is more germane to recent events. After Powers’s capture, the CIA determined that it will have to invest in new technology in order to avoid similar scandals in the future. One option was a faster plane like the CIA’s A-12, a Mach-3.35 reconnaissance plane developed by Lockheed which would later morph into the better known SR-71. Another option was to invest in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. In October 1962 development began on the D-21, a drone went into service in 1969 but was cancelled in 1971, after just 4 flights over China. The UAV program remained in limbo until advances in GPS revolutionalized the technology and, with the advent of the global war on terror (GWOT), the drones were finally weaponized. The rest is an all-too-sanguine history. And Badaber and Iran have both continued to feature in it.
Having briefly shed its obscurity in April 1985, when the Pakistani Army and its Afghan allies massacred 52 Soviet and Afghan prisoners of war during a prison uprising there, Badaber once again made headlines when it was discovered that the Pakistani military had leased its local base to the CIA to launch drone attacks in the neighboring tribal regions. The news predictably endangered the whole city of Peshawar, which became a frequent target of retaliating militants. Meanwhile, the new impunity accorded by the unmanned aircraft encouraged the US to push farther into the region, sending reconnaissance aircraft first into Pakistan itself (as during the killing of Bin Laden) and later Iran (as we have just discovered).
However, things have changed since the Cold War. Whereas in the past development of new technology like the D-21 required major industrial investment, today it can be done on the cheap, using pilfered R&D. Israelis have long used this strategy to develop their own variants of US and French technology. China, Russia and Pakistan, among others, have long engaged in industrial espionage to acquire advanced military technology which allows them to stay abreast of modern military technology without having to make the kind of massive investments that only rich countries like the US can afford. All resent (or envy) the impunity that the drones have accorded the US and would like to develop their own without reinventing the wheel. There was already news that Pakistani gave China access to the stealth technology that the US used during its raid to kill Bin Laden. It would therefore have come as nothing less than a blessing for the US to land its most advanced stealth drone virtually intact into Iran’s hands for possible delivery to China and Russia. It is not hard to imagine the glee with which the CIA’s gift will be received in Moscow or Beijing. It will save both years of R&D and plenty of dollars.
More alarming however is the prospect that this development could lead the CIA to move toward the development of more autonomous unmanned crafts in order to avoid interception or hijacking. Research along these lines is already under way. One such project, the Ethical Governor, inspired the following animation from the genius Glaswegian animator John Butler:
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Glasgow-based sociologist and a columnist for Al Jazeera English.