Downing highlights limitations of US unmanned aircraft, say
US DRONES have been a key tool in conflicts against insurgent organizations such as the Taliban and the Islamic State group, but Iran’s downing of one of the aircraft highlights their limitations against more sophisticated adversaries.
While drones offer the significant attraction of not putting American lives at risk and can stay aloft for more than a day, allowing for extended surveillance missions, they can be vulnerable to air defenses, are often expensive, and their loss can lead to sensitive hardware falling into the wrong hands.
American drones “are generally not stealthy, they are generally not aerodynamically impressive,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
“I believe sophisticated air defenses will continue to have good chances to shoot down an aircraft like an RQ-4 whenever it is in position to do meaningful surveillance of their territories or other assets,” he said, referring to the type of drone brought down by Iran near the strategic Strait of Hormuz last week.
But “it takes quite a bit to target an American military asset, and most countries won’t do it just because Iran seems to have ‘gotten away with it’ here,” O’Hanlon said, noting that punishing US sanctions on the country mean it is not emerging unscathed.
“These drones were not, generally speaking, designed with contested airspace in mind,” said Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
“If you looked at the operational history of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, you’ll see that it generally avoids denied-airspace environments,” he said.
Michel said that Predator drones had been shot down in the Balkans and Iraq, while a stealthy RQ170 was lost over Iran in 2011, with Tehran claiming to have used it to build a copy of its own.
“There are some possibilities for operating in contested airspace, but generally no, this is a system that if someone wants to shoot it down, they probably can,” he said.
But American drones have proved “tremendously important” in “counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency style operations,” said Michel.