Iran: Who's Afraid of Ahmadinejad's New Drone?

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AFP / Getty Images

A photo released the Iranian Defense Ministry shows the claimed launch of the Karrar long-range drone

Iran's weapons-development efforts have long had a wisp of The Wizard of Oz about them — in other words, don't look behind the curtain. In the movie, of course, it was Toto who tugged back the curtain to show the lever-pulling wiz was a fraud. But it was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself who stood proudly on the stage at Tehran's Malek-Ashtar University of Technology as a sky-blue curtain rose to unveil Iran's first armed drone. It also showed the world, if not his fellow Iranians, just how threadbare Tehran's arsenal is.

As showbiz, it had its effect. "Iranians Roll Out Unmanned Bomber," the Wall Street Journal warned darkly on its front page the day after Ahmadinejad's announcement. Global television has repeatedly shown two chador-clad women pulling up the cloak to reveal the Karrar — Farsi for Striker — but which Ahmadinejad affectionately dubbed the "ambassador of death." ("It's a curious name for a system," State Department spokesman — and former Air Force officer — P.J. Crowley noted, as if the U.S. Air Force's two armed drones, the Predator and Reaper, were benignly named.)

Yet the gap between rhetoric and rockets looms large, experts suggest. "More like the 'ambassador of minor damage to unintended target,'" says Richard Aboulafia, a veteran analyst with the Teal Group, an aerospace-consulting firm just outside Washington, D.C. Iran lacks the ability to guide its drone over long distances, nor does it have the sensors — both on the aircraft and at the ground stations controlling it — to make it any kind of a threat. Adds Kenneth Katzman, an Iranian-military expert with the Congressional Research Service: "It is likely to have virtually no actual military value."

The gold-colored, 13-ft. (4 m) drone appears to be powered by a single turbojet engine with a 250-lb. (110 kg) bomb slung underneath its belly. It purportedly can carry a bomb weighing up to 450 lb. (200 kg) and has a range of about 600 miles (960 km), which is still short of reaching Israel. The design has left U.S. experts scratching their heads. "Is Estes the prime contractor?" asked one blogger on an aviation website, referring to the Colorado-based model-rocket maker loved by teenage boys since 1958.

But Iran isn't concerned about reality, just making the right impression, especially among its home audience. "Iran has no defense against an Israeli or U.S. first strike," John McCreary, a veteran U.S. intelligence analyst, said in his NightWatch blog Tuesday. "The leaders want to camouflage that fact by showing off weapons, without admitting that they have little value in protecting Iranians." Tehran also knows that the idea of an unmanned aircraft packs an insidious kind of punch. With no pilot at risk, the visceral reaction is that they can go anywhere to spy or destroy. But that's due to the success the Pentagon has had in recent years with those Predators and Reapers over Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. That success is not guaranteed simply because a country possesses drones.

The battlefield history of drones — armed or not — has largely been spent flying over territory that the U.S. or its allies control. Fly them into contested airspace — where foes on the ground or in other aircraft are trying to shoot them down — "and they'll start falling from the sky like rain," says U.S. Air Force Lieut. General Dave Deptula, a longtime airpower advocate who will soon end a 34-year career. The U.S. proved that in February 2009, when it claimed a pair of manned fighters shot down an Iranian drone hanging out over Iraq. The Iranians may have proved it themselves. According to a piece by Michael Ledeen in the Wall Street Journal, the Iranian air force securing the site of the controversial Bushehr nuclear reactor recently shot down what it thought were three enemy drones. The drones had been deployed by another sector of the Iranian military — but no one had bothered to tell the country's air force about the project.

The offensive side of drone warfare is just as challenging. The unmanned aircraft itself is just the tip of a technological iceberg. Hidden are the complicated technologies — ranging from satellite communications and navigation to sophisticated surveillance systems and miniaturized weapons — that get the drone within striking distance of its target, and then guide its warhead home. The Karrar apparently lacks any means of communication with the ground beyond line-of-sight radio waves.

State Department spokesman Crowley suggested Monday that the drone rollout is part of a push by Iran to counter a growing alliance of its neighbors and the U.S. concerned about its nuclear ambitions. "There's no particular logic to the path that Iran is on," he said. "Its nuclear ambitions, we believe, will actually in the long run make Iran less secure." Especially if the guys who designed the drone also are working on Iran's A-bomb.