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Iran Has Reverse-Engineered a US Drone. So What?

Iran will have to do more than simply copy a captured US drone if it hopes to match America's singular capacity for drone warfare.
Image via the Office Of The Iranian Supreme Leader

Word from Tehran is that a US surveillance drone, reportedly "commandeered" by the Iranians while it was flying in Iranian airspace in 2011, has been reverse-engineered and copied by Iran. "Our engineers succeeded in breaking the drone's secrets and copying them," an Iran state television broadcast announced. "It will soon take a test flight."

Iran's announcement, if true, flies in the face of predictions made by US officials when the drone was first captured. Chairman of the Senate homeland security committee Joe Lieberman said at the time, "I don't have confidence at this point that they are really able to make a copy of it…. It's a very sophisticated piece of machinery."


Whether or not Iran has reproduced the complex technology of the US RQ-170 Sentinel drone is a matter of historical incidence. As the history of arms races has shown, no technological advancement is insurmountable; every development can and likely will be reproduced before being bettered and reproduced again. According to a report from Defense One, "In just one decade, just about every country in the world will have the means to either build or buy unmanned aerial vehicles." (UAVs) Currently the countries with advanced armed drone technologies include the US, UK, Russia, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and China. More than 20 other countries, including India and South Africa, have reportedly begun developing weaponized drones.

If it isn't already, it will eventually be true that nations in opposition to the US will have the technology to carry out drone surveillance and targeted killings. But I'd argue that having technological know-how is a small part of the equation determining how drone wars will play out on the geo-political stage in coming decades. The ability of, say, Iran or China to build advanced unmanned aerial systems does not mean that a considerable challenge to America's drone warfare monopoly will emerge any time soon.

Yes, the most complex unmanned aerial systems will probably be reproduced by other nations, but the US remains at the vanguard of shadow war.

Geopolitics and funding point to continued US dominance in this realm. It is the US, after all, that is leading the charge in a war on the amorphous notion of "terror." This protracted, borderless engagement has produced the conditions for shadowy drone wars to become the order of the day. An enemy unbounded by borders encourages a mode of warfare without delineated front lines or battlegrounds. The expanding use of surveillance and armed drones both reflected and prompted the new topography of ideological war in which the US has engaged over the last decade. The creep of US drone bases across Africa highlights an entrenchment of America's dominant purchase on drone warfare, and thus commitment to invasion-free (or invasion-constant, depending on how you look at it) warfare.


As Maryam Monalisa Gharavi wrote in The New Inquiry, “The United states stands behind a one-way mirror playing the most terrifying sovereign role imaginable in a so-called globalized world, watching, calculating, and exacting who will die.” The question, then, is for how long this mirror will face just one way. There's reason to think the US monopoly will last some time. Bolstering American control of weaponized drone development is not simply shadow war, but the basic fact of funding: Seventy percent of drone manufacturers are based in the US, according to a 2011 study by global marketing research group Lucintel. Total revenue from unmanned aircraft systems is expected to exceed $7 billion over the next decade.

This puts other global powers and US adversaries in a reactive position when it comes to drone technology. Yes, the most complex unmanned aerial systems will probably be reproduced by other nations, but the US remains at the vanguard of shadow war, with a near-imperial spread of military bases around the world that enable American drones to survey much of the globe with relatively little regard for the sovereignty of other countries. Indeed, nation-state sovereignty itself is drawn into question when drone technology destabilizes the notion of global conflict.

The realities of how skies and spaces are controlled and tracked are radically transformed when drone technology is the order of the day. For now, this is largely US territory — and the latest iteration of US empire. It is the geopolitics of territory, sovereignty, and control that should be the focus of questions regarding drones, not the import of one particular vehicle being copied.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via the Office Of The Iranian Supreme Leader