The dust-up between Iranian jets and a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf on Nov. 1 focuses attention on the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles in this hotspot, among others.
Advances in drone capabilities have given commanders powerful new options for gathering intelligence and conducting airstrikes. Drones are put to aggressive uses that would be ruled out if a pilot's life were at risk. To those in a drone's flight path, however, it makes no difference whether a pilot is aboard or not. A spy mission is a spy mission; an airstrike an airstrike.
It does matter where a drone is flying. The Pentagon says an unarmed U.S. Predator drone was conducting routine surveillance in international waters when two Iranian fighter jets fired on it in an apparent attempt to shoot it down, then pursued it as it headed away from Iran before landing at an unidentified base.
A prominent Iranian parliament member has said the drone violated Iranian airspace. The Pentagon says the episode took place 16 miles from the Iranian shore. International waters begin at 12 miles. We may never know exactly where the incident took place, or whether the Iranians shot to destroy the drone or just warn its operators.
In any case, it's worth considering why the Iranians might have been skittish upon detecting the Predator. Even if the Pentagon's account is correct, the drone was close to Iranian airspace, and the Pentagon hasn't said which direction it was flying. Iran recently has been the target of black ops including assassinations of nuclear scientists, explosions at scientific facilities and a computer virus that disrupted uranium enrichment efforts.
It's clear the U.S. has flown at least one UAV into Iranian airspace already. Unveiling a downed U.S. Sentinel drone last December, the Iranians claimed they had forced it to land electronically; the U.S. said it had crashed. Pentagon spokesman George Little said yesterday the U.S. had communicated to the Iranians that the U.S. would continue to conduct surveillance flights in international waters over the gulf. He didn't address missions over Iran itself.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.